Antarctic temperature and global sea level closely coupled over the past five glacial cycles

Article metrics


Ice cores from Antarctica record temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide variations over the past six glacial cycles1,2. Yet concomitant records of sea-level fluctuations—needed to reveal rates and magnitudes of ice-volume change that provide context to projections for the future3,4,5,6,7,8,9—remain elusive. Reconstructions indicate fast rates of sea-level rise up to 5 cm yr−1 during glacial terminations10, and 1–2 cm yr−1 during interglacials11,12 and within the past glacial cycle13. However, little is known about the total long-term sea-level rise in equilibration to warming. Here we present a sea-level record for the past 520,000 years based on stable oxygen isotope analyses of planktonic foraminifera and bulk sediments from the Red Sea. Our record reveals a strong correlation on multi-millennial timescales between global sea level and Antarctic temperature1, which is related to global temperature6,7. On the basis of this correlation, we estimate sea level for the Middle Pliocene epoch (3.0–3.5 Myr ago)—a period with near-modern CO2 levels—at 25±5 m above present, which is validated by independent sea-level data6,14,15,16. Our results imply that even stabilization at today’s CO2 levels may cause sea-level rise over several millennia that by far exceeds existing long-term projections3.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Composite Red Sea relative sea-level reconstruction (RSL*), development and comparison with other data.
Figure 2: Temperature:RSL* relationship and implications.


  1. 1

    Jouzel, J. et al. Orbital and millennial Antarctic climate variability over the past 800,000 years. Science 317, 793–796 (2007).

  2. 2

    Siegenthaler, U. et al. Stable carbon cycle-climate relationship during the Late Pleistocene. Science 310, 1313–1317 (2005).

  3. 3

    Pachauri, R. K. & Reisinger, A. (eds) Climate Change 2007 Synthesis Report—Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007); available at <>.

  4. 4

    Alley, R. B., Clark, P. U., Huybrechts, P. & Joughin, I. Ice-sheet and sea-level changes. Science 310, 456–460 (2005).

  5. 5

    Rahmstorf, S. A semi-empirical approach to projecting future sea-level rise. Science 315, 368–370 (2007).

  6. 6

    Hansen, J. et al. Climate change and trace gases. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 365, 1925–1954 (2007).

  7. 7

    Hansen, J. et al. Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J. 2, 217–231 (2008).

  8. 8

    Grinsted, A., Moore, J. C. & Jevrejeva, S. Reconstructing sea level from paleo and projected temperatures 200 to 2100 AD. Clim. Dyn.doi: 10.1007/s00382-008-0507-2 (2009).

  9. 9

    Pfeffer, W. T., Harper, J. T. & O’Neel, S. Kinematic constraints on glacier contributions to 21st-century sea-level rise. Science 321, 1340–1343 (2008).

  10. 10

    Fairbanks, R. G. A 17,000 year glacio-eustatic sea level record: Influence of glacial melting rates on the Younger Dryas event and deep ocean circulation. Nature 342, 637–642 (1989).

  11. 11

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

  12. 12

    Carlson, A. E. et al. Rapid early Holocene deglaciation of the Laurentide ice sheet. Nature Geosci. 1, 620–624 (2008).

  13. 13

    Siddall, M., Rohling, E. J., Thompson, W. G. & Waelbroeck, C. Marine isotope stage 3 sea level fluctuations: Data synthesis and new outlook. Rev. Geophys. 46, RG4003 (2008).

  14. 14

    Dowsett, H. J. et al. Joint investigations of the Middle Pliocene climate. Glob. Planet. Change 9, 169–195 (1994).

  15. 15

    Royer, D. L. CO2-forced climate thresholds during the Phanerozoic. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 70, 5665–5675 (2006).

  16. 16

    Naish, T. et al. Obliquity-paced Pliocene West Antarctic ice sheet oscillations. Nature 458, 322–328 (2009).

  17. 17

    Ahn, J. & Brook, E. J. Atmospheric CO2 and climate from 65 to 30 ka BP. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L10703 (2007).

  18. 18

    Loulergue, L. et al. New constraints on the gas age-ice age difference along the EPICA ice cores, 0–50 kyr. Clim. Past 3, 527–540 (2007).

  19. 19

    Siddall, M. et al. Sea-level fluctuations during the last glacial cycle. Nature 423, 853–858 (2003).

  20. 20

    Rohling, E. J. et al. Magnitudes of sea-level lowstands of the past 500,000 years. Nature 394, 162–165 (1998).

  21. 21

    Rohling, E. J., Marsh, R., Wells, N. C., Siddall, M. & Edwards, N. Similar melt-water contributions to glacial sea-level variability from Antarctic and northern ice sheets. Nature 430, 1016–1021 (2004).

  22. 22

    Siddall, M., Bard, E., Rohling, E. J. & Hemleben, Ch. Sea-level reversal during Termination II. Geology 34, 817–820 (2006).

  23. 23

    Parrenin, F. et al. The EDC3 chronology for the EPICA Dome C ice core. Clim. Past 3, 485–497 (2007).

  24. 24

    Siddall, M., Chappell, J. & Potter, E. K. in The Climate of Past Interglacials (eds Sirocko, F., Litt, T., Claussen, M. & Sanchez-Goni, M. F.) 75–92 (Elsevier, 2006).

  25. 25

    Dutton, A. et al. Phasing and amplitude of sea-level and climate change during the penultimate interglacial. Nature Geosci. 2, 355–359 (2009).

  26. 26

    Rohling, E. J. et al. New constraints on the timing and amplitude of sea level fluctuations during early to middle marine isotope stage 3. Paleoceanography 23, PA3219 (2008).

  27. 27

    Pollard, D. & DeConto, R. M. Modelling West Antarctic ice sheet growth and collapse through the past five million years. Nature 458, 329–332 (2009).

  28. 28

    Knutti, R. & Hegerl, G. C. The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth’s temperature to radiation changes. Nature Geosci. 1, 735–743 (2008).

  29. 29

    Pagani, M., Caldeira, K., Archer, D. & Zachos, J. C. Atmosphere: An ancient carbon mystery. Science 314, 1156–1157 (2006).

  30. 30

    Biton, E., Gildor, H. & Peltier, W. R. Relative sea level reduction at the Red Sea during the Last Glacial Maximum. Paleoceanography 23, PA1214 (2008).

Download references


This study contributes to UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) project NE/C003152/1, the NERC Response of humans to abrupt environmental transitions consortium (RESET, NE/E01531X/1), and German Science Foundation (DFG) projects He 697/17; Ku 2259/3. M.S. acknowledges support from a fellowship at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory and an RCUK fellowship from the University of Bristol.

Author information

All authors contributed extensively to the work presented in this letter.

Correspondence to E. J. Rohling.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information, Part S1

Supplementary Information (PDF 2898 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading