Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.


  1. Hearty, P. J., Hollin, J. T., Neumann, A. C., O’Leary, M. J. & McCulloch, M. T. Global sea-level fluctuations during the Last Interglaciation (MIS 5e). Quat. Sci. Rev. 26, 2090–2112 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Thompson, W. G., Spiegelman, M. W., Goldstein, S. L. & Speed, R. C. An open-system model for the U-series age determinations of fossil corals. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 210, 365–381 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Stirling, C. & Andersen, M. Uranium-series dating of fossil coral reefs: Extending the sea-level record beyond the last glacial cycle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 284, 269–283 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Andersen, M. B., Gallup, C. D., Scholz, D., Stirling, C. H. & Thompson, W. G. U-series dating of fossil coral reefs: Consensus and controversy. PAGES News 17, 54–56 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Edwards, R. L., Gallup, C. D. & Cheng, H. in Uranium-Series Geochemistry (eds Bourdon, B., Henderson, G. M., Lundstrom, C. C. & Turner, S. P.) 363–405 (Mineralogical Society of America, 2003).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  6. Gallup, C. D., Edwards, R. L. & Johnson, R. G. The timing of high sea levels over the past 200,000 years. Science 263, 796–800 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Stirling, C., Esat, T., Lambeck, K. & McCulloch, M. Timing and duration of the Last Interglacial: Evidence for a restricted interval of widespread coral reef growth. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 160, 745–762 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Stirling, C., Esat, T., McCulloch, M. & Lambeck, K. High-precision U-series dating of corals from Western Australia and implications for the timing and duration of the Last Interglacial. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 135, 115–130 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Rohling, E. J. et al. High rates of sea-level rise during the last interglacial period. Nature Geosci. 1, 38–42 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Blanchon, P., Eisenhauer, A., Fietzke, J. & Liebetrau, V. Rapid sea-level rise and reef back-stepping at the close of the last interglacial highstand. Nature 458, 881–885 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Peltier, W. R. & Fairbanks, R. G. Global glacial ice volume and the Last Glacial Maximum duration from an extended Barbados sea level record. Quat. Sci. Rev. 25, 3322–3337 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Clark, P. U. & Huybers, P. Last interglacial and future sea level. Nature 462, 856–857 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Otto-Bliesner, B. et al. Simulating Arctic climate warmth and icefield retreat in the last interglaciation. Science 311, 1751–1753 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Chen, J., Curran, H., White, B. & Wasserburg, G. Precise chronology of the last interglacial period: 234U–230Th data from fossil coral reefs in the Bahamas. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 103, 82–97 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Fruijtier, C., Elliott, T. & Schlager, W. Mass-spectrometric 234U–230Th ages from the Key Largo Formation, Florida Keys, United States: Constraints on diagenetic age disturbance. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 112, 267–277 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. White, B., Curran, H. A. & Wilson, M. A. Bahamian coral reefs yield evidence of a brief sea-level lowstand during the Last Interglacial. Carbonate. Evaporite. 13, 10–22 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Edwards, R. L., Chen, J. H. & Wasserburg, G. J. 238U–234U–230Th–232Th systematics and the precise measurement of time over the past 500,000 years. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 81, 175–192 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Bard, E. et al. Deglacial sea-level record from Tahiti corals and the timing of global meltwater discharge. Nature 382, 241–244 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Bard, E., Hamelin, B. & Fairbanks, R. G. U–Th ages obtained by mass spectrometry in corals from Barbados: Sea level during the past 130,000 years. Nature 346, 456–458 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Thompson, W. G. & Goldstein, S. L. Open-system coral ages reveal persistent suborbital sea-level cycles. Science 308, 401–404 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Thompson, W. G. & Goldstein, S. L. A radiometric calibration of the SPECMAP timescale. Quat. Sci. Rev. 25, 3207–3215 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Scholz, D., Mangini, A. & Meischner, D. in The Climate of Past Interglacials Vol. 7 (eds Sirocko, F., Claussen, M., Sanchez Goni, M. F. & Litt, T.) 119–139 (Developments in Quaternary Sciences, Elsevier, 2007).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Scholz, D., Mangini, A. & Felis, T. U-series dating of diagenetically altered fossil reef corals. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 218, 163–178 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Carew, J. L. & Mylroie, J. E. Quaternary tectonic stability of the Bahamas archipelago: Evidence from fossil coral reefs and flank margin caves. Quat. Sci. Rev. 14, 145–153 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Pindell, J. L. Alleghenian reconstruction and subsequent evolution of the Gulf of Mexico, Bahamas, and proto-Caribbean. Tectonics 4, 1–39 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Potter, E-K. & Lambeck, K. Reconciliation of sea-level observations in the Western North Atlantic during the last glacial cycle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 217, 171–181 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Curran, H. A. & White, B. in Pleistocene and Holocene Carbonate Environments on San Salvador Island, Bahamas (ed. Curran, H. A.) 27–34 (28th International Geological Congress, AGU, Field Trip Guidebook T175, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Wilson, M. A., Curran, H. A. & White, B. Paleontological evidence of a brief global sea-level event during the last interglacial. Lethaia 31, 241–250 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William G. Thompson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 769 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing