Collapse of polar ice sheets during the stage 11 interglacial

Abstract

Contentious observations of Pleistocene shoreline features on the tectonically stable islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas have suggested that sea level about 400,000 years ago was more than 20 metres higher than it is today1,2,3,4. Geochronologic and geomorphic evidence indicates that these features formed during interglacial marine isotope stage (MIS) 11, an unusually long interval of warmth during the ice age1,2,3,4. Previous work has advanced two divergent hypotheses for these shoreline features: first, significant melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, in addition to the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Sheet1,2,3; or second, emplacement by a mega-tsunami during MIS 11 (ref. 4, 5). Here we show that the elevations of these features are corrected downwards by 10 metres when we account for post-glacial crustal subsidence of these sites over the course of the anomalously long interglacial. On the basis of this correction, we estimate that eustatic sea level rose to 6–13 m above the present-day value in the second half of MIS 11. This suggests that both the Greenland Ice Sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed during the protracted warm period while changes in the volume of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet were relatively minor, thereby resolving the long-standing controversy over the stability of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during MIS 11.

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Figure 1: Comparison of the duration of the MIS 11 and MIS 1 interglacials.
Figure 2: Predicted sea-level change across the hiatus in ice volume changes (410–401 kyr ago) spanned by the model MIS 11 interglacial.
Figure 3: Predicted relative sea-level changes across the model MIS 11 interglacial.
Figure 4: Plot of the predicted GIA-induced present-day elevation of MIS 11 highstands that are currently greater than zero.

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Acknowledgements

We thank P. Hearty and D. Bowen for discussions of MIS 11 field data, and J. L. Davis for suggestions regarding data analysis. Support for this research was provided by NSF-OCE-0825293 and OCE-1202632 (M.E.R.), Harvard University (J.X.M.) and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (J.X.M.).

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Correspondence to Maureen E. Raymo.

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Raymo, M., Mitrovica, J. Collapse of polar ice sheets during the stage 11 interglacial. Nature 483, 453–456 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10891

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