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Sea-level oscillations during the last interglacial highstand recorded by Bahamas corals


Rapid sea-level changes during the last interglacial highstand have been inferred from distinct stratigraphic units, which suggest multiple episodes of reef growth1. However, it is difficult to resolve the age differences between fossil reef units2,3,4,5, and results from conventional U–Th geochronology instead suggest a prolonged, stable sea-level highstand during the last interglacial6,7,8. Here we present U–Th ages from last interglacial coral reef sequences in the Bahamas that reflect the timing of sea-level highstands. We use a method that corrects the ages for diagenetic disturbance of the U–Th isotope ratios. Our dated Bahamas stratigraphy confirms that at least one sea-level oscillation interrupted the last interglacial highstand. Further oscillations, as suggested by reconstructions from the Red Sea9, would also be consistent with our data. We estimate that the minimum rate of sea-level change across the first oscillation was 2.6 m per 1,000 years, slightly lower than previous estimates9,10. In contrast, during the past 6,000 years of the Holocene interglacial, sea level was relatively stable11. We therefore suggest that ice sheets during the last interglacial, which was warmer than today and has been proposed as an analogue for future warming12,13, were less stable than during the mid-to-late Holocene.

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Figure 1: Great Inagua site A: two successive fossil reefs directly superposed.
Figure 2: A test of reproducibility for ages from four individual, in situ corals at Great Inagua (GI) site A.
Figure 3: A comparison of mean corrected and mean conventional ages of stratigraphic units at different sites.
Figure 4: Conventional ages from Reefs I and II.
Figure 5: The mean age and range of ‘acceptable’ conventional ages for a given screening range, for the data shown in Fig. 4.


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This work was supported by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Ocean and Climate Change Center, the Comer Science and Education Foundation, and NSF awards OCE-0602383, EAR0819714, and OCE0902849. We acknowledge the use of the WHOI ICP-MS Facility and thank S. Birdwhistell and J. Blusztajn for their assistance. E. Griffin and A. Steward of The College of Wooster assisted with Great Inagua fieldwork. S. Hale and R. Herrman of Smith College assisted with San Salvador fieldwork. This is a contribution to the PALSEA working group. We thank the Director and staff of the Gerace Research Centre on San Salvador for logistical support of our fieldwork in the Bahamas. We thank A. Dutton, C. D. Gallup and C. Stirling for their careful reviews, which improved the manuscript.

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W.G.T. provided the geochronology, including mass spectrometry and age interpretations, and wrote the manuscript. H.A.C., B.W. and M.A.W. contributed detailed mapping and stratigraphic interpretations. W.G.T., H.A.C. and M.A.W. participated in the fieldwork and sampling of the Great Inagua and San Salvador field sites.

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Correspondence to William G. Thompson.

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Thompson, W., Allen Curran, H., Wilson, M. et al. Sea-level oscillations during the last interglacial highstand recorded by Bahamas corals. Nature Geosci 4, 684–687 (2011).

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