A challenge to sea-level calibration

As well as revealing the Milankovich pacemaker for past climate change, studies of oxygen isotopes from deep-water of benthic foraminifera in marine sediment cores also give a guide to the height of former sea levels. That approach is based on several assumptions, of which two are central. One is that the isolation of deep-water organisms from temperature variations at the sea surface, which control the take up of 18O by near surface plankton: well supported by the measured constancy of cold deep ocean water. The other is that oxygen is rapidly and homogeneously mixed throughout the ocean water column. The reason why good mixing is critical stems from the very purpose of measuring benthic oxygen isotopes, itself based on a sound assumption. Ice masses on land lock up a proportion of evaporated ocean water. Evaporation favours the lighter 16O isotope in water molecules over the heavier, so that atmospheric water vapour has a lower 18O/16O ratio than seawater. When snow falls and turns into glacial ice that build up ice caps, surface water of the oceans becomes depleted in 16O so that its 18O/16O ratio (standardised as the δ18O value) increases. That makes oceanic δ18O values, measured from benthic foram shells, an indirect or proxy measure of both the amount of ice locked up on land and changing sea levels: the principal quantification of past global climate change whose record goes back to the oldest preserved ocean floor (Lower Jurassic, ~205 Ma). Modern humans eventually left Africa to colonise the rest of the world  sometime before 60 Ma ago, the first reliable age of evidence for colonisation outside Africa. Africa is surrounded by sea, except for the narrow strip of land into Palestine that ends up in a desert dead end to further migrations. So, it seems likely that the exodus was across the outlet of the Red Sea that would have become narrower and shallower as sea level fell when the Earth moved into the last glacial epoch after 117 thousand years ago, when sea-level was as high as it is today.

The assumption of rapid, efficient mixing of the oceans has not been thoroughly tested. In fact it is estimated that any complete turnover takes around a thousand years, so there is likely to be a significant time lag in the sea-floor record. New, independent evidence also suggests that the calibration of benthic δ18O needs revision (Dorale, J.A. et al. 2010. Sea-level highstand 81,000 years ago in Mallorca. Science, v. 327, p. 860-863). It comes from caves on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca that connect directly with the sea. Stalactites and stalagmites (collectively called speleothem) have formed in the caves, their growth being affected by flooding and drying as sea level rose and fell during the last 130 ka. At each flooding level encrustations formed around the speleothem to produce bulbous growths at different heights in the caves, which are clearly forming today at mean sea level. The researchers from the US, Mallorca, Italy and Romania dated the bulbs using the U/Th method appropriate for speleothems, and found three stages of formation: at 121, 116 and 80-82 ka. The two older encrustations are at ~2.6 m above modern sea level, bang on the oxygen isotope calibration for the end of the last interglacial. However, those formed between 80-82 ka ago – a period of warming during the overall trend to colder conditions as ice sheets grew – are about a metre above modern sea level: very different from the estimate of 10-20 m below­ based on the benthic δ18O calibration.

It is too early to tell in what quandary palaeo-oceanographers will be placed by this large discrepancy. There are four main possibilities for the aberrant results. First, the Mediterranean might have stood higher that global sea level for some reason, but that seems highly unlikely as the connection through the Straits of Gibraltar is deep enough to have maintained flow even at the last glacial maximum when global sea level was around 120 m below the present. Second is that the means of calibration using raised coral reefs on tectonically rising coastlines of New Guinea and Barbados  is seriously out for part of the last glacial period. Thirdly, somehow the Mallorcan crust was depressed during the last glacial period. The island is rising at about 0.2 mm yr-1, which would give an uplift of 16 m since 81 ka, but that conflicts with the good match with the last highest sea level at 121 and 116 ka. Finally, the authors suggest that at 81 ka the volume of the world’s ice caps was much the same as today, despite the higher-than-present δ18O values in contemporary sea-floor sediments.

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