Over recent decades, the rate of global mean sea-level rise has increased, although the magnitude—tens of centimetres—remains small from a geological perspective. Such a modest rise in sea level presents a challenge when attempting to assess its global climate impacts, as the signal is weak. However, in previous warmer geological periods, sea levels reached up to tens of metres higher than the present levels. These palaeoclimate periods offer a unique opportunity to investigate the climate effects of higher sea levels. Here, using climate simulations of the Last Interglacial period and a set of present-day sea-level sensitivity experiments, we highlight the importance of global mean sea-level rise in modulating global climate. The lowering of terrestrial elevation and deepening of oceanic bathymetry due to a spatially uniform rise in sea level reorganizes atmospheric and oceanic circulations. Our simulations of the Last Interglacial show that considering this aspect of global mean sea-level rise in isolation from changes associated with land–sea masks or freshwater input reduces the long-lasting model–data mismatch in the Southern Hemisphere. Furthermore, the present-day sensitivity experiments demonstrate that a slight increase in global mean sea level causes substantial adjustments in the global climate, particularly at mid–high latitudes.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 per month
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 print issues and online access
$259.00 per year
only $21.58 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Get just this article for as long as you need it
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
The temperature results from the sea-level experiments are publicly available on Zenodo (https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7365287). The annual mean atmosphere and ocean results are publicly available on Zenodo (https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7650523). More model output can be provided upon request. In addition, the LIG SST reconstructions are available in ref. 36.
The NorESM code is available on GitHub (https://github.com/NorESMhub/NorESM).
Fox-Kemper, B. et al. Ocean, cryosphere and sea level change. In Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2021).
Oppenheimer, M. et al. Sea level rise and implications for low-lying islands, coasts and communities. In IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (eds Pörtner, H. O. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019).
Frederikse, T. et al. The causes of sea-level rise since 1900. Nature 584, 393–397 (2020).
Dangendorf, S. et al. Persistent acceleration in global sea-level rise since the 1960s. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 705–710 (2019).
Nerem, R. S. et al. Climate-change-driven accelerated sea-level rise detected in the altimeter era. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 2022–2025 (2018).
Dieng, H. B., Cazenave, A., Meyssignac, B. & Ablain, M. New estimate of the current rate of sea level rise from a sea level budget approach. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 3744–3751 (2017).
Vousdoukas, M. I. et al. Global probabilistic projections of extreme sea levels show intensification of coastal flood hazard. Nat. Commun. 9, 2360 (2018).
Melet, A. et al. Contribution of wave setup to projected coastal sea level changes. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 125, e2020JC016078 (2020).
Rasoulkhani, K., Mostafavi, A., Reyes, M. P. & Batouli, M. Resilience planning in hazards-humans-infrastructure nexus: a multi-agent simulation for exploratory assessment of coastal water supply infrastructure adaptation to sea-level rise. Environ. Model. Softw. 125, 104636 (2020).
Schuerch, M. et al. Future response of global coastal wetlands to sea-level rise. Nature 561, 231–234 (2018).
Hinkel, J. et al. The ability of societies to adapt to twenty-first-century sea-level rise. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 570–578 (2018).
Farnsworth, A. et al. Climate sensitivity on geological timescales controlled by nonlinear feedbacks and ocean circulation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 46, 9880–9889 (2019).
Richter, K. et al. Detecting a forced signal in satellite-era sea-level change. Environ. Res. Lett. 15, 094079 (2020).
Church, J. A. et al. Estimates of the regional distribution of sea level rise over the 1950–2000 period. J. Clim. 17, 2609–2625 (2004).
Rohling, E. J. et al. Sea-level and deep-sea-temperature variability over the past 5.3 million years. Nature 508, 477–482 (2014).
DeConto, R. M. & Pollard, D. Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise. Nature 531, 591–597 (2016).
Dutton, A. et al. Sea-level rise due to polar ice-sheet mass loss during past warm periods. Science 349, aaa4019 (2015).
Hu, A. et al. Influence of Bering Strait flow and North Atlantic circulation on glacial sea-level changes. Nat. Geosci. 3, 118–121 (2010).
Tan, N. et al. Exploring the MIS M2 glaciation occurring during a warm and high atmosphere CO2 Pliocene background climate. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 472, 266–276 (2017).
Di Nezio, P. N. et al. The climate response of the Indo-Pacific warm pool to glacial sea level. Paleoceanography 31, 866–894 (2016).
Kageyama, M. et al. The PMIP4 Last Glacial Maximum experiments: preliminary results and comparison with the PMIP3 simulations. Clim. Past 17, 1065–1089 (2021).
Lhardy, F. et al. A first intercomparison of the simulated LGM carbon results within PMIP-Carbon: role of the ocean boundary conditions. Paleoceanogr. Paleoclimatol. 36, e2021PA004302 (2021).
Brady, E. C., Otto-Bliesner, B. L., Kay, J. E. & Rosenbloom, N. Sensitivity to glacial forcing in the CCSM4. J. Clim. 26, 1901–1925 (2013).
Martínez-Botí, M. A. et al. Plio-Pleistocene climate sensitivity evaluated using high-resolution CO2 records. Nature 518, 49–54 (2015).
Haywood, A. M. et al. The Pliocene Model Intercomparison Project Phase 2: large-scale climate features and climate sensitivity. Clim. Past 16, 2095–2123 (2020).
Rovere, A. et al. The Mid-Pliocene sea-level conundrum: glacial isostasy, eustasy and dynamic topography. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 387, 27–33 (2014).
Miller, K. G. et al. High tide of the warm Pliocene: implications of global sea level for Antarctic deglaciation. Geology 40, 407–410 (2012).
Gulev, S. K. et al. Changing state of the climate system. In Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2021).
Otto-Bliesner, B. L. et al. Large-scale features of Last Interglacial climate: results from evaluating the lig127k simulations for the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6)–Paleoclimate Modeling Intercomparison Project (PMIP4). Clim. Past 17, 63–94 (2021).
Pedersen, R. A., Langen, P. L. & Vinther, B. M. The last interglacial climate: comparing direct and indirect impacts of insolation changes. Clim. Dyn. 48, 3391–3407 (2017).
Berger, A. & Loutre, M. F. Insolation values for the climate of the last 10 million years. Quat. Sci. Rev. 10, 297–317 (1991).
Siegenthaler, U. et al. Stable carbon cycle-climate relationship during the late Pleistocene. Science 310, 1313–1317 (2005).
Turney, C. S. M. et al. A global mean sea-surface temperature dataset for the Last Interglacial (129-116 kyr) and contribution of thermal expansion to sea-level change. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 12, 3341–3356 (2020).
Hoffman, J. S., Clark, P. U., Parnell, A. C. & He, F. Regional and global sea-surface temperatures during the last interglaciation. Science 355, 276–279 (2017).
Capron, E. et al. Temporal and spatial structure of multi-millennial temperature changes at high latitudes during the Last Interglacial. Quat. Sci. Rev. 103, 116–133 (2014).
Chandler, D. & Langebroek, P. Southern Ocean sea surface temperature synthesis: Part 2. Penultimate glacial and last interglacial. Quat. Sci. Rev. 271, 107190 (2021).
Guo, C. et al. Description and evaluation of NorESM1-F: a fast version of the Norwegian Earth System Model (NorESM). Geosci. Model Dev. 12, 343–362 (2019).
Stone, E. J. et al. Impact of meltwater on high-latitude early Last Interglacial climate. Clim. Past 12, 1919–1932 (2016).
Gjermundesn, A. et al. Shutdown of Southern Ocean convection controls long-term greenhouse gas-induced warming. Nat. Geosci. 14, 724–731 (2021).
Dima, M., Nichita, D. R., Lohmann, G., Ionita, M. & Voiculescu, M. Early-onset of Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation weakening in response to atmospheric CO2 concentration. NPJ Clim. Atmos. Sci. 4, 27 (2021).
Kanzow, T. et al. Seasonal variability of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation at 26.5° N. J. Clim. 23, 5678–5698 (2010).
Woodgate, R. & Peralta-Ferriz, C. Warming and freshening of the Pacific inflow to the Arctic from 1990-2019 implying dramatic shoaling in Pacific winter water ventilation of the Arctic water column. Geophys. Res. Lett. 48, e2021GL092528 (2021).
Hillaire-Marcel, C., de Vernal, A., Bilodeau, G. & Weaver, A. J. Absence of deep-water formation in the Labrador Sea during the last interglacial period. Nature 410, 1073–1077 (2001).
Galaasen, E. V. et al. Rapid reductions in North Atlantic deep water during the peak of the Last Interglacial period. Science 343, 1129–1132 (2014).
Woodgate, R. Arctic ocean circulation: going around at the top of the world. Nat. Educ. Knowl. 4, 8 (2013).
Beszczynska-Möller, A., Woodgate, R. A., Lee, C., Melling, H. & Karcher, M. A synthesis of exchanges through the main oceanic gateways to the Arctic Ocean. Oceanography 24, 82–99 (2011).
Gent, P. R. et al. The Community Climate System Model Version 4. J. Clim. 24, 4973–4991 (2011).
Bentsen, M. et al. The Norwegian Earth System Model, NorESM1-M—Part 1: description and basic evaluation of the physical climate. Geosci. Model Dev. 6, 687–720 (2013).
Zhang, Z. S. et al. Pre-industrial and mid-Pliocene simulations with NorESM-L. Geosci. Model Dev. 5, 523–533 (2012).
Lunt, D. J. et al. DeepMIP: model intercomparison of early Eocene climatic optimum (EECO) large-scale climate features and comparison with proxy data. Clim. Past 17, 203–227 (2021).
Kageyama, M. et al. A multi-model CMIP6-PMIP4 study of Arctic sea ice at 127 ka: sea ice data compilation and model differences. Clim. Past 17, 37–62 (2021).
Levitus, S. & Boyer, T. P. World ocean atlas 1994 volume 4: temperature. In NOAA Atlas NESDIS (US Government Printing Office, 1994).
Turney, C. S. M. et al. Early Last Interglacial ocean warming drove substantial ice mass loss from Antarctica. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 3996–4006 (2020).
Golledge, N. R. et al. Retreat of the Antarctic ice sheet during the Last Interglaciation and implications for future change. Geophys. Res. Lett. 48, e2021GL094513 (2021).
This study was jointly supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grants nos. 41888101 and 42125502), the National Key Research and Development Program of China (grant no. 2018YFA0605602), the SapienCE (project no. 262618) and other projects (projects nos. 314371, 229819 and 221712) from the Norwegian Research Council, as well as the computing resources from Notur/Norstore projects NN9133/NS9133, NN9486/NS9486 and NN9874/NS9874.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information
Nature Geoscience thanks Daniel Lunt and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Tom Richardson, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended Data Fig. 1 Comparison between last interglacial simulations with reconstructions36 at sites.
The blue dots and boxes show the simulated annual mean surface air temperature (SAT, in °C) or sea surface temperature (SST, in °C) anomalies (at data sites and the range) without the global mean sea-level (GMSL) rise. The red dots and boxes show the simulated annual mean SAT/SST anomalies (at data sites and the range) with the GMSL rise. The last interglacial (LIG) sensitivity experiments show strong warming between 60°S and 70°S when the GMSL rises. While most sites used in the reconstruction are located between 40°S and 50°S, complicating direct comparison. The LIG experiments demonstrate that the model–data mismatch is reduced by considering the GMSL rise. Without the GMSL rise, the root mean square error (RMSE) between the simulated SAT (SST) and the reconstruction is 2.83 (2.85). When the GMSL rise is 5 m (10 m), the RMSE between the simulated SAT and the reconstruction becomes 2.48 (2.50), and the RMSE is 2.56 (2.58) between the simulated SST and the reconstructions. The box and whisker show the range of simulated surface temperature change at 17 sites, with the maximum, the 75% percentile, the mean, the 25% percentile, and the minimum value from top to bottom.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Comparison between last interglacial and present-day experiments.
(a) and (b) show the surface pressure changes (in Pa) due to the global mean sea-level rise of 10 m. (c) and (d) plot the sea-level surface pressure changes (in Pa). (e) and (f) illustrate the 850hPa winds anomalies (in unit m/s). (g) and (h) display the anomalies in surface air temperature (SAT, in °C). Only significant differences with a confidence level higher than 95% (t-test) are shaded. The grey and blue contours highlight pressure changes with a spacing of 40 Pa in (a), (b), (c), and (d). In (e) and (f), the arrows plot the changes in winds, and the blue-filled contours show the changes in wind speed with a confidence level higher than 95% (t-test). The supplementary information presents detailed explanations for this figure.
Extended Data Fig. 3 Comparison in ocean heat transport between last interglacial and present-day experiments.
(a) shows the changes in global ocean heat transport (OHT, in PW) between the lig126sl5m and the lig126 experiment (green), between the lig126sl10m and the lig126 experiment (red), between the co2400sl5m and the co2400 experiment (blue), and between the co2400sl10m and the co2400 experiment (black). The solid (dash) lines indicate the significant (insignificant) changes higher (lower) than a 95% confidence level (t-test). (b) and (c) as in (a), but for the Atlantic and the Indian and Pacific, respectively.
Extended Data Fig. 4 Comparison in meridional ocean circulations between last interglacial and present-day experiments.
(a) shows the stream function (in Sv) of Atlantic meridional ocean circulation (AMOC) for the lig126sl5m (filled colors and black contours) and the lig126 experiment (red and blue contours). The contours display stream function with a spacing of 4 Sv. (b) plots the differences in AMOC between the lig126sl5m and the lig126 experiment. (c) and (d) show the AMOC comparison between the lig126sl10m and the lig126 experiment. (e) to (h) plot the comparison for the co2400, co2400sl5m, and co2400sl10m experiments.
Extended Data Fig. 5 Surface pressure changes due to global mean sea-level rise in present-day sensitivity experiments.
(a) shows the comparison between the co2400sl0.625 m and the co2400 experiment, the response of annual surface pressure (in Pa) to the sea-level rise of 0.625 m. (b) to (f) as in (a), but the sea-level rise is 1.25, 2.5, 5, 10, and 20 m, respectively. Only the significant differences with a confidence level higher than 95% (t-test) appear in the filled contours. The grey contours highlight pressure changes with a spacing of 40 Pa.
Extended Data Fig. 6 Near-surface wind changes due to global mean sea-level rise in present-day sensitivity experiments.
(a) shows the comparison between the co2400sl0.625 m and the co2400 experiment, the response of 850hPa winds (in m/s) to the sea-level rise of 0.625 m. (b) to (f) as in (a), but the sea-level rise is 1.25, 2.5, 5, 10, and 20 m, respectively. The arrows plot the changes in winds, and the blue-filled contours show the changes in wind speed with a confidence level higher than 95% (t-test).
Extended Data Fig. 7 Mixed layer depth changes due to global mean sea-level rise in present-day sensitivity experiments.
(a) shows the comparison between the co2400sl0.625 m and the co2400 experiment, the response of mixed layer depth (in m) to the sea-level rise of 0.625 m. (b) to (f) as in (a), but the sea-level rise is 1.25, 2.5, 5, 10, and 20 m, respectively. Only the significant differences with a confidence level higher than 95% (t-test) appear in the filled contours. The black outlines highlight the changes with a contour spacing of 10 m.
Extended Data Fig. 8 Sea surface temperature changes due to global mean sea-level rise in present-day sensitivity experiments.
(a) shows the comparison between the co2400sl0.625 m and the co2400 experiment, the response of sea surface temperature (in °C) to the sea-level rise of 0.625 m. (b) to (f) as in (a), but the sea-level rise is 1.25, 2.5, 5, 10, and 20 m, respectively. Only the significant differences with a confidence level higher than 95% (t-test) appear in the filled contours. The black outlines highlight temperature contours of negative and positive changes of 0.5, 1, and 2 degrees.
Extended Data Fig. 9 Statistics of annual water volume in seaways in high northern latitudes in present-day sensitivity experiments.
(a) Bering Strait. (b) Canadian Archipelago seaways. (c) Fram Strait. (d) Danmark Strait. (e) Barents Sea open. (f) Iceland-Faroe-Scotland channels. Positive means flow northward, while negative means flow southward (in Sv). The dots show the mean values, and the length of the error bars represent s.d. Filled (open) dots indicate the global mean sea-level rise leads to a significant (insignificant) change (higher than the 95% confidence level with t-test) in the mean value compared to the co2400 experiment. Solid (dotted) error bars indicate the sea-level rise leads to a significant (insignificant) response (higher than the 95% confidence level with F-test) in the s.d. relative to the co2400 experiment. Statistical analyses are based on 200 annual means for each experiment. The grey horizontal lines show the mean values simulated in the pre-industrial control experiment, which agree with observations45,46.
Rights and permissions
Springer Nature or its licensor (e.g. a society or other partner) holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.
About this article
Cite this article
Zhang, Z., Jansen, E., Sobolowski, S.P. et al. Atmospheric and oceanic circulation altered by global mean sea-level rise. Nat. Geosci. (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-023-01153-y