Links between early Holocene ice-sheet decay, sea-level rise and abrupt climate change


The beginning of the current interglacial period, the Holocene epoch, was a critical part of the transition from glacial to interglacial climate conditions. This period, between about 12,000 and 7,000 years ago, was marked by the continued retreat of the ice sheets that had expanded through polar and temperate regions during the preceding glacial. This meltdown led to a dramatic rise in sea level, punctuated by short-lived jumps associated with catastrophic ice-sheet collapses. Tracking down which ice sheet produced specific sea-level jumps has been challenging, but two events between 8,500 and 8,200 years ago have been linked to the final drainage of glacial Lake Agassiz in north-central North America. The release of the water from this ice-dammed lake into the ocean is recorded by sea-level jumps in the Mississippi and Rhine-Meuse deltas of approximately 0.4 and 2.1 metres, respectively. These sea-level jumps can be related to an abrupt cooling in the Northern Hemisphere known as the 8.2 kyr event, and it has been suggested that the freshwater release from Lake Agassiz into the North Atlantic was sufficient to perturb the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. As sea-level rise on the order of decimetres to metres can now be detected with confidence and linked to climate records, it is becoming apparent that abrupt climate change during the early Holocene associated with perturbations in North Atlantic circulation required sustained freshwater release into the ocean.

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Figure 1: Deglaciation of the Northern Hemisphere during the first half of the Holocene (largely based on ref. 12).
Figure 2: Early Holocene high-resolution palaeoclimate and relative sea-level records.
Figure 3: Modelled sea-level fingerprint31 of the final Lake Agassiz drainage compared with relative sea-level records.


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This work has benefited from funding provided by the US National Science Foundation (grants OCE-0601814 and EAR-0719179), the US Department of Energy (through the National Institute for Climatic Change Research Coastal Center) and Tulane's Oliver Fund. Discussions with numerous colleagues have been of great value; we specifically mention the encouragement provided by M. Siddall. This is a contribution to the PALSEA program and IGCP project 588.

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Correspondence to Torbjörn E. Törnqvist.

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Törnqvist, T., Hijma, M. Links between early Holocene ice-sheet decay, sea-level rise and abrupt climate change. Nature Geosci 5, 601–606 (2012).

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