"Catastrophic" Sea Level Rise Is a Real Threat, Coral Records Suggest

By Eliza Strickland | April 16, 2009 8:55 am

XcaretA new study of fossilized coral reefs in Mexico has revealed that sea levels have risen abruptly in past epochs, which researchers say supports the theory that ocean levels could rise dramatically again in response to global warming. The study suggests that a sudden rise of 6.5 feet to 10 feet occurred within a span of 50 to 100 years about 121,000 years ago, at the end of the last warm interval between ice ages. “The potential for sustained rapid ice loss and catastrophic sea-level rise in the near future is confirmed by our discovery of sea-level instability” in that period, the authors write [The New York Times].

Other researchers have previously found evidence of rapid sea level rise as ice ages gave way to more temperate eras, causing vast ice sheets to melt. But because the coral shows evidence from a warmer interglacial period—similar to the one we’re in currently—the find boosts the chances that today’s melting ice sheets could trigger rapid sea-level rise, the study authors say [National Geographic News]. However, not everyone is convinced that the authors have proven their case. Some experts argue that the researchers haven’t definitively shown that the coral fossils date from 121,000 years ago.

For the study, published in Nature, geoscientist Paul Blanchon examined ancient reef fossils uncovered during the excavation for a new resort and water park on the Yucatan Peninsula, called Xcaret. Blanchon says his work revealed a clear point where an existing reef died as the sea rose too quickly for coral organisms to build their foundation up toward the sea surface. Once the sea level stabilized again, the same group of corals grew once more, but farther inshore and up to 10 feet higher in elevation, a process known to geologists as backstepping [The New York Times].

Blanchon determined the age of the fossils by measuring the decay of the radioactive element thorium in the rock, and also by comparing them to reefs in the Bahamas whose age has been established. But climate change expert Tad Pfeffer says that Blanchon’s age estimates aren’t accurate enough to support his theories. “It’s an interesting idea, but one that for me is only suggestive and not compelling,” Pfeffer said. “I’d want to see something more solid than this if I’m going to buy the idea of such rapid sea level rise at the time [of the last interglacial]” [National Geographic News].

Related Content:
80beats: Antarctic Ice Bridge Breaks, Hastening the Collapse of an Ice Sheet
80beats: Antarctic Ice Sheet Has Collapsed Before, and Looks Likely to Collapse Again
80beats: A Rising Tide Swamps All Coasts: New Estimates of Sea Level Rise Spell Global Trouble

Image: flickr / Sitomon

  • S-M-R-T

    “rapid” = 50 – 100 years. More than enough time to sell your ocean front property.

  • oh come on

    50-100 years to relocate the populations of most of the pacific islands, bangladesh and other low lying areas around the world or build seawalls that are at least twenty feet high to protect them? its barely any time at all when you talk about moving millions of people…and where will they go? add ten feet to the sea level and most port cities in the entire world will be under water…and this isn’t even taking into account the shift in climates and increased severity of weather that will accompany this change…

  • Tommy

    Question? If rising sea levels should be as obvious as all the chicken little’s claim it will be; then why don’t we see this; given their claims that we have lost so much ice at our poles; it just doesn’t add up…My father is a scientist and as he says “bad data in…bad data out” or as I say; it depends on your political lean and how much money you want from the governments and the powers to be…not to mention trying to get a bead on a planet that has been around for over 4 billion years and has had cycles and catastrophes that have shaped it…how can we possibly model what will go on it a wink of an eye of 50 to 100 years…lets get real… we know just enough to see the picture of now and a wide wide idea of 10 to 25 years in the future and that is it…volcano’s have proven this or earthquakes and large bodies from space have been able to change this planet to incredible levels…so there is an error that we can not easily account for…and it would be pure arrogance to think we can predict to such a degree from what we hear every day from the media and money hungry scientist

  • lo9an

    Yo Tommy,

    The bottom line is even if nothing can be done to curb potential climate threats, one thing remains certain, CLEAN AIR can and should be implemented. Which of course means a broad new energy economy that is sustainable and highly efficient! After all, it is 2009! Of course lowering carbon and other chemicals may not appease the planet, it will provide a path towards a future! Because eventually, whether the earth warms or not, the planet will run out of coal, oil, and other natural resources that cannot be ‘replanted!’

  • Tommy

    Yo lo9an,

    True True and that goes with out saying; but a holistic view, approach, and implementation is the only way to deal with the damaging affects of human development on this planet. Knee jerk reactions and interest groups leaning way to the left or right get the most attention to formulate action and their actions are more along the lines; and here I will use the analogy “treating the symptoms of the disease” instead of getting non bias knowledge to “treat the disease its’ self”. Pure education and research is the only answer; not politically correct and self serving or centered ideology!

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