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Nature. 2009 Dec 17;462(7275):863-7. doi: 10.1038/nature08686.

Probabilistic assessment of sea level during the last interglacial stage.

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  • 1Department of Geosciences, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA.


With polar temperatures approximately 3-5 degrees C warmer than today, the last interglacial stage (approximately 125 kyr ago) serves as a partial analogue for 1-2 degrees C global warming scenarios. Geological records from several sites indicate that local sea levels during the last interglacial were higher than today, but because local sea levels differ from global sea level, accurately reconstructing past global sea level requires an integrated analysis of globally distributed data sets. Here we present an extensive compilation of local sea level indicators and a statistical approach for estimating global sea level, local sea levels, ice sheet volumes and their associated uncertainties. We find a 95% probability that global sea level peaked at least 6.6 m higher than today during the last interglacial; it is likely (67% probability) to have exceeded 8.0 m but is unlikely (33% probability) to have exceeded 9.4 m. When global sea level was close to its current level (>or=-10 m), the millennial average rate of global sea level rise is very likely to have exceeded 5.6 m kyr(-1) but is unlikely to have exceeded 9.2 m kyr(-1). Our analysis extends previous last interglacial sea level studies by integrating literature observations within a probabilistic framework that accounts for the physics of sea level change. The results highlight the long-term vulnerability of ice sheets to even relatively low levels of sustained global warming.

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