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Departures from eustasy in Pliocene sea-level records


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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Figure 1: Stack of globally distributed benthic δ18O records21 showing pattern of climate variability over past 5 Myr.
Figure 2: Elevation (m), relative to modern SL, of a shoreline indicator deposited at 2.95 Myr predicted using the VM2 Earth model.
Figure 3: Elevation (m), relative to modern SL, of a shoreline indicator deposited at 2.95 Myr predicted using the LM Earth model.
Figure 4: Elevation (m) predictions for the east coast of the US and Mexico as in Figs 2a and 3a.
Figure 5: Elevation (m), relative to modern SL, of a shoreline indicator deposited at 2.95 Myr, highlighting those regions where palaeoshorelines would lie within ±4 m of the predicted eustatic SL, as in Figs 2a and 3a.


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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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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.

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Correspondence to Maureen E. Raymo.

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Raymo, M., Mitrovica, J., O’Leary, M. et al. Departures from eustasy in Pliocene sea-level records. Nature Geosci 4, 328–332 (2011).

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