Links between early Holocene ice-sheet decay, sea-level rise and abrupt climate change

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Nature Geoscience
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The beginning of the current interglacial period, the Holocene epoch, was a critical part of the transition from glacial to interglacial climate conditions. This period, between about 12,000 and 7,000 years ago, was marked by the continued retreat of the ice sheets that had expanded through polar and temperate regions during the preceding glacial. This meltdown led to a dramatic rise in sea level, punctuated by short-lived jumps associated with catastrophic ice-sheet collapses. Tracking down which ice sheet produced specific sea-level jumps has been challenging, but two events between 8,500 and 8,200 years ago have been linked to the final drainage of glacial Lake Agassiz in north-central North America. The release of the water from this ice-dammed lake into the ocean is recorded by sea-level jumps in the Mississippi and Rhine-Meuse deltas of approximately 0.4 and 2.1 metres, respectively. These sea-level jumps can be related to an abrupt cooling in the Northern Hemisphere known as the 8.2 kyr event, and it has been suggested that the freshwater release from Lake Agassiz into the North Atlantic was sufficient to perturb the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. As sea-level rise on the order of decimetres to metres can now be detected with confidence and linked to climate records, it is becoming apparent that abrupt climate change during the early Holocene associated with perturbations in North Atlantic circulation required sustained freshwater release into the ocean.

At a glance


  1. Deglaciation of the Northern Hemisphere during the first half of the Holocene (largely based on ref. 12).
    Figure 1: Deglaciation of the Northern Hemisphere during the first half of the Holocene (largely based on ref. 12).

    a, Onset of the Holocene. FIS, Fennoscandian Ice Sheet; GIS, Greenland Ice Sheet. b, Final stage of proglacial Lake Agassiz, including the major domes of the Laurentide Ice Sheet (Foxe, Keewatin and Labrador). c, Initial stage following final Lake Agassiz drainage through Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait. d, Final stage of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, as well as a simplified configuration of surface ocean currents and principal region of North Atlantic deep-water formation (NADW). Note that it is not implied that these features were not operational during earlier stages of the Holocene.

  2. Early Holocene high-resolution palaeoclimate and relative sea-level records.
    Figure 2: Early Holocene high-resolution palaeoclimate and relative sea-level records.

    Ages are expressed with respect to AD 1950. a, Greenland ice-core δ18O record, including a 10-year weighted mean time series around the 8.2 kyr BP event24 and a 20-year weighted mean from the GRIP (Greenland Ice Core Project) core for the remainder of the record47. b, Neogloboquadrina pachyderma s. abundance in North Atlantic deep-marine sediments26. The ~100 year offset with respect to the other time series is likely to be caused by age uncertainties due to the marine 14C reservoir effect. c, Speleothem δ18O record reflecting Asian monsoon activity in Hoti Cave, Oman (stalagmite H14)27. Note the precursor to the 8.2 kyr BP event proper that can be recognized in several of the palaeoclimate records (b,c). d–f, Relative sea-level records from basal peat in the Rhine-Meuse Delta, the Netherlands29, 37 (d), the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana, USA23, 30, 48 (e) and isolation basins in southeast Sweden36 (f). The boxes are defined by the 2σ calibrated age range and the 2σ vertical uncertainty associated with a variety of errors. The relative sea-level curve from the Netherlands plots below the post-8 kyr BP data37 as they indicate mean high water, whereas the pre-8 kyr BP data29 indicate mean sea level. The onset of the sea-level jump was obtained by combining several 14C ages that bracket its stratigraphic signature (midpoint of 8.45 kyr BP). The end of the sea-level jump (midpoint of 8.30 kyr BP) is defined by the next sea-level index point in the succession. The magnitude of sea-level jumps is indicated; note that the small sea-level jump in the Mississippi Delta relies primarily on stratigraphic evidence30. Green arrows indicate glacial-isostatic-adjustment-modelled rates of relative sea-level rise for 9.0–8.5 kyr BP31. g, Laurentide Ice Sheet (LIS) sea-level contribution7. h, Freshwater fluxes associated with catastrophic Lake Agassiz outbursts. The timing of the two final stages of Lake Agassiz drainage is derived from the 2σ age range of the onset of sea-level jumps in the Rhine-Meuse Delta29 and Mississippi Delta30, respectively. Their magnitudes are mean values for the most likely six-month drainage scenarios33; for consistency, the magnitude of the freshwater flux around 9.2 kyr BP35 has been recalculated by assuming a similar duration.

  3. Modelled sea-level fingerprint of the final Lake Agassiz drainage compared with relative sea-level records.
    Figure 3: Modelled sea-level fingerprint31 of the final Lake Agassiz drainage compared with relative sea-level records.

    Sea-level jumps of different magnitudes around 8.2 kyr BP (with 1σ errors) have been reported from the Rhine-Meuse Delta29 (a) and the Mississippi Delta30 (b). In contrast, a record from Chesapeake Bay49 (c) identified a period of marsh accretion centred on ~8.3 kyr BP (preceded and followed by phases of marsh drowning), interpreted here as an RSL slowdown (or possibly an RSL stillstand) that corresponds to the model prediction of zero RSL change at this time in this area. Note that this interpretation is tentative, given possible tidal-range changes around this time.


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  1. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Tulane University, 6823 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Lousiana 70118-5698, USA

    • Torbjörn E. Törnqvist &
    • Marc P. Hijma
  2. Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, Tulane University, 6823 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118-5698, USA

    • Torbjörn E. Törnqvist

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