PNAS Commentary: Study sheds new light on sea level rise at last ice age


CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculated global sea level changes over the past 35,000 years, concluding that in order to account for the amount of sea level lowering at the peak of the last ice age, much more ice would have had to have been tied up on land than previously thought.

The researchers further concluded that most of this “excess ice” – or an amount greater than today – was likely added to the present Antarctic ice sheets. Lead researcher Kurt Lambeck from Australian National University and colleagues estimated that during the last glacial maximum, these ice sheets had enough excess ice to increase global sea levels some 25 meters, much more than the 10-meter excess scientists previously estimated.

These new findings are critical to understanding the sources of sea level rise that is taking place today in response to a warming climate, according to Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist, who co-authored a commentary piece on the research in the latest edition of PNAS, which will be published this week.

“Essentially, this new study implies that the Antarctic ice sheets are losing less mass today than had previously been estimated through satellite measurements,” said Clark, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “During the last ice age, the ice sheets were so large and heavy they pushed the entire land mass down and displaced the viscous mantle below.

“As the ice sheets began to retreat, the land mass beneath began to rise due to the area below being refilled by the mantle as it slowly flows back,” Clark added. “This process is continuing today and needs to be accounted for when estimating from satellites current mass loss from the Antarctic ice sheets. If the effect of this process is bigger than previously thought, then current mass loss is less than we thought.

“If this is the case, then at least some of the rising sea level today that is being attributed to loss of the Antarctic ice sheets must have some other source.”

The other main sources of sea level rise today are from the loss of the Greenland ice sheets, receding glaciers on a global basis, and the expansion of the ocean itself through warming.

Studies show that sea level today is rising globally at a rate of about 3.0 millimeters a year, and about 1/10th of that (0.3 mm) was thought to be from Antarctica.

“If this new study holds up, that means that the rate of contribution from Antarctica to today’s rise is less than 0.3 millimeters,” Clark said. “Learning the source of the increase will help us better understand how sea level rise may play out in the future.”

Prior to Lambeck’s study, the prevailing theory among many scientists was that Antarctic ice sheets contained enough ice to raise global sea levels about 70 meters if it had melted all at once some 21,000 years ago. These ice sheets today hold enough water to raise sea levels 60 meters – about 10 meters less than during the last glacial maximum.

But the study by Lambeck and colleagues, which was based on a comprehensive analysis of nearly 1,000 paleo-sea level markers, suggests instead that the Antarctic had enough mass during the last ice age to raise global sea levels some 85 meters if melted.

In contrast, the entire Greenland ice sheet today contains enough ice to raise global sea levels about seven meters, if melted at once.

Clark, who was a coordinating lead author on sea level rise for the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, cautioned that there may be other explanations for the “excess ice” thought to account for the lower sea levels during the last ice age. These might include a greater influence from the lateral viscosity of the Earth’s mantle fluid, the possibility of a large, grounded East Siberian ice sheet, and the influence of physical factors on organisms used as proxies to determine sea level rises.

Lev Tarasov of Memorial University of Newfoundland, co-authored the commentary with Clark.

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

About the OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences: CEOAS is internationally recognized for its faculty, research and facilities, including state-of-the-art computing infrastructure to support real-time ocean/atmosphere observation and prediction. The college is a leader in the study of the Earth as an integrated system, providing scientific understanding to address complex environmental challenges