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Rapid sea-level rise and reef back-stepping at the close of the last interglacial highstand


Widespread evidence of a +4–6-m sea-level highstand during the last interglacial period (Marine Isotope Stage 5e) has led to warnings that modern ice sheets will deteriorate owing to global warming and initiate a rise of similar magnitude by ad 2100 (ref. 1). The rate of this projected rise is based on ice-sheet melting simulations and downplays discoveries of more rapid ice loss2,3. Knowing the rate at which sea level reached its highstand during the last interglacial period is fundamental in assessing if such rapid ice-loss processes could lead to future catastrophic sea-level rise. The best direct record of sea level during this highstand comes from well-dated fossil reefs in stable areas4,5,6. However, this record lacks both reef-crest development up to the full highstand elevation, as inferred7 from widespread intertidal indicators at +6 m, and a detailed chronology, owing to the difficulty of replicating U-series ages on submillennial timescales8. Here we present a complete reef-crest sequence for the last interglacial highstand and its U-series chronology from the stable northeast Yucatán peninsula, Mexico. We find that reef development during the highstand was punctuated by reef-crest demise at +3 m and back-stepping to +6 m. The abrupt demise of the lower-reef crest, but continuous accretion between the lower-lagoonal unit and the upper-reef crest, allows us to infer that this back-stepping occurred on an ecological timescale and was triggered by a 2–3-m jump in sea level. Using strictly reliable 230Th ages of corals from the upper-reef crest, and improved stratigraphic screening of coral ages from other stable sites, we constrain this jump to have occurred 121 kyr ago and conclude that it supports an episode of ice-sheet instability during the terminal phase of the last interglacial period.

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Figure 1: Stratigraphic sections and reconstruction of reef development at Xcaret during the last interglacial.
Figure 2: Isotopic reliability of 230 Th coral ages from Xcaret.
Figure 3: Relative sea-level reconstructions for the last interglacial highstand.

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We thank M. Sanchez, E. Rios and R. Raigoza for providing park access and hospitality; E. Jordan-Dahlgren for original descriptions of the aquarium trench; G. Jordan-Garza and I. Pino for field assistance; A. Kolevica and K. Fischer von Mollard for help with the 230Th measurements; and C. Neumann, P. Hearty, C. Holmden, D. Hopley, A. Curran and W. C. Ward for discussions. Funding was provided by DGAPA grant IN218799.

Author Contributions P.B. initiated the study, collected and analysed the field data and wrote the manuscript. A.E., J.F. and V.L. performed the U-series and X-ray diffraction analyses, and A.E. discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Paul Blanchon.

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Blanchon, P., Eisenhauer, A., Fietzke, J. et al. Rapid sea-level rise and reef back-stepping at the close of the last interglacial highstand. Nature 458, 881–884 (2009).

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