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Departures from eustasy in Pliocene sea-level records

Nature Geoscience volume 4, pages 328332 (2011) | Download Citation


Proxy data suggest that atmospheric CO2 levels during the middle of the Pliocene epoch (about 3 Myr ago) were similar to today, leading to the use of this interval as a potential analogue for future climate change. Estimates for mid-Pliocene sea levels range from 10 to 40 m above present, and a value of +25 m is often adopted in numerical climate model simulations. A eustatic change of such magnitude implies the complete deglaciation of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and significant loss of mass in the East Antarctic ice sheet. However, the effects of glacial isostatic adjustments have not been accounted for in Pliocene sea-level reconstructions. Here we numerically model these effects on Pliocene shoreline features using a gravitationally self-consistent treatment of post-glacial sea-level change. We find that the predicted modern elevation of Pliocene shoreline features can deviate significantly from the eustatic signal, even in the absence of subsequent tectonically-driven movements of the Earth’s surface. In our simulations, this non-eustatic sea-level change, at individual locations, is caused primarily by residual isostatic adjustments associated with late Pleistocene glaciation. We conclude that a combination of model results and field observations can help to better constrain sea level in the past, and hence lend insight into the stability of ice sheets under varying climate conditions.

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Support for this research was provided by NSF-OCE0825293 to M.E.R. and by Harvard University and The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to J.X.M. We thank T. Cronin and J. Brigham-Grette for discussions of field data and support from the USGS PRISM program that helped jump-start this investigation.

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Author notes

    • Maureen E. Raymo
    •  & Jerry X. Mitrovica

    These authors contributed equally to this work


  1. Department of Earth Sciences, Boston University, 685 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

    • Maureen E. Raymo
  2. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, 20 Oxford Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Jerry X. Mitrovica
  3. School of Arts and Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, Western Australia 6959, Australia

    • Michael J. O’Leary
  4. Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, USA

    • Robert M. DeConto
  5. Department of Environmental Sciences, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, North Carolina 28403, USA

    • Paul J. Hearty


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M.E.R. and J.X.M. jointly conceived and designed the GIA model experiments and wrote first draft of paper; J.X.M. carried out the GIA experiments; R.M.D. provided ice sheet simulations; M.J.O. and P.J.H. contributed to analysis of geologic data; all authors contributed to discussions and revisions of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Maureen E. Raymo.

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