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Ice sheet collapse following a prolonged period of stable sea level during the last interglacial



During the last interglacial period, 127–116 kyr ago, global mean sea level reached a peak of 5–9 m above present-day sea level. However, the exact timing and magnitude of ice sheet collapse that contributed to the sea-level highstand is unclear. Here we explore this timing using stratigraphic and geomorphic mapping and uranium-series geochronology of fossil coral reefs and geophysical modelling of sea-level records from Western Australia. We show that between 127 and 119 kyr ago, eustatic sea level remained relatively stable at about 3–4 m above present sea level. However, stratigraphically younger fossil corals with U-series ages of 118.1±1.4 kyr are observed at elevations of up to 9.5 m above present mean sea level. Accounting for glacial isostatic adjustment and localized tectonics, we conclude that eustatic sea level rose to about 9 m above present at the end of the last interglacial. We suggest that in the last few thousand years of the interglacial, a critical ice sheet stability threshold was crossed, resulting in the catastrophic collapse of polar ice sheets and substantial sea-level rise.

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Figure 1: Elevation of modern and MIS 5e sea-level indicators above a modern MSL datum for sites between Cape Vlaming and Rottnest Island.
Figure 2: Surveyed cross-section at Fairbridge Bluff, Rottnest Island.
Figure 3: Relative sea-level curve for Western Australia.
Figure 4: GIA correction near the end of MIS 5e for Western Australia.


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This study of MIS 5e sea level is the product of more than ten years of research and collaboration among the authors and others not mentioned. We thank Omnistar’s Perth office for providing the global positioning system satellite signal. Our work was also supported by NSF award OCE1202632 to M.E.R., P.J.H., and J.X.M.; NSF awards OCE0602383, EAR0819714 and OCE0902849 to W.G.T.; ARC award DP0209059 to M. McCulloch, P.J.H. and A. Halliday; the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Harvard University (J.X.M.); and M. Gagnon, Curtin University.

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Authors and Affiliations



M.J.O. contributed to the field mapping and provided the geochronology, including mass spectrometry and age interpretations. He also provided GIA interpretations and wrote the manuscript. P.J.H. contributed to the field mapping and stratigraphic interpretations and assisted in the writing of the manuscript. W.G.T. contributed to the field mapping, provided the geochronology, including mass spectrometry and age interpretations, and assisted in the writing of the manuscript. M.E.R. contributed to the field mapping, provided GIA interpretations and assisted in the writing of the manuscript. J.X.M. carried out the GIA modelling, including interpretations, and assisted in the writing of the manuscript. J.M.W. contributed to stratigraphic and geomorphic field-mapping interpretations.

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Correspondence to Michael J. O’Leary.

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O’Leary, M., Hearty, P., Thompson, W. et al. Ice sheet collapse following a prolonged period of stable sea level during the last interglacial. Nature Geosci 6, 796–800 (2013).

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