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Geologic evidence is the forerunner of ominous prospects for a warming earth

A new review in Marine Geology shows how slightly warmer temperatures and moderate CO2 concentrations over a hundred thousand years ago led to dramatic superstorms and sea-level rise in the western Atlantic Ocean

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Credit: Marine Geology

Philadelphia, PA, October 12, 2017 - While strong seasonal hurricanes have devastated many of the Caribbean and Bahamian islands this year, geologic studies on several of these islands illustrate that more extreme conditions existed in the past. A new analysis published in Marine Geology shows that the limestone islands of the Bahamas and Bermuda experienced climate changes that were even more extreme than historical events. In the interest of our future world, scientists must seek to understand the complexities of linked natural events and field observations that are revealed in the geologic record of past warmer climates.

In Bermuda and the Bahamas, the geology of the last interglacial (LIG; approximately 120,000 years ago) is exquisitely preserved in nearly pure carbonate sedimentary rocks. A record of superstorms and changing sea levels is exposed in subtidal, beach, storm, and dune deposits on multiple islands. Extensive studies by the authors over the past decades on these islands have documented stratigraphic, sedimentologic, and geomorphic evidence of major oceanic and climatic disruptions at the close of the last interglacial.

Dr. Paul J. Hearty, a retired Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Dr. Blair. R. Tormey, a Coastal Research Scientist at Western Carolina University conducted an invited review of published findings. It demonstrates that during a global climate transition in the late last interglacial, also known as marine isotope substage 5e (MIS 5e), abrupt multi-meter sea-level changes occurred. Concurrently, coastlines of the Bahamas and Bermuda were impacted by massive storms generated in the North Atlantic Ocean, resulting in a unique trilogy of wave-transported deposits: megaboulders, chevron-shaped, storm-beach ridges, and runup deposits on high dune ridges.

While perhaps more mundane than the megaboulders (found only locally on Eleuthera), the sedimentological structures found within chevron ridge and runup deposits across islands throughout the Bahamas and Bermuda point to frequent and repeated inundation by powerful storm waves, in some locations leaving storm deposits tens of meters above sea level.

During the last interglacial, sea levels were about 3-9 meters higher than they are now. The geologic evidence indicates that the higher sea-levels were accompanied by intense "superstorms," which deposited giant wave-transported boulders at the top of cliffed coastlines, formed chevron-shaped, storm beach ridges in lowland areas, and left wave runup deposits on older dunes more than 30 meters above sea level. These events occurred at a time of only slightly warmer global climate and CO2 (about 275 ppm) was much lower than today.

The authors emphasize "the LIG record reveals that strong climate forcing is not required to yield major impacts on the ocean and ice caps." In our industrial world, rapidly increasing atmospheric CO2 has surpassed 400 ppm, levels not achieved since the Pliocene era about 3 million years ago, while global temperature has increased nearly 1 °C since the 1870s. Today, ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising, oceans are warming, and weather events are becoming more extreme.

Drs. Hearty and Tormey conclude that with the greatly increased anthropogenic CO2 forcing at rates unmatched in nature, except perhaps during global extinction events, dramatic change is certain. They caution that, "Our global society is producing a climate system that is racing forward out of humanity's control into an uncertain future. If we seek to understand the non-anthropogenic events of the last interglaciation, some of the consequences of our unchecked forward speed may come more clearly into focus...a message from the past; a glimpse into the future."

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Notes for Editors

The article is "Sea-level change and superstorms; geologic evidence from the last interglacial (MIS 5e) in the Bahamas and Bermuda offers ominous prospects for a warming Earth," by Paul J. Hearty and B.R. Tormey, (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.margeo.2017.05.009). It will appear in Marine Geology, volume 390, published by Elsevier. It is openly available online at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025322717302700

Full text of this article is available to credentialed journalists upon request. Contact Kristian Wilson at +44 1865 843817 or k.wilson@elsevier.com. Journalists who wish to speak with the authors should contact Paul J. Hearty at kaisdad04@gmail.com or Blair R. Tormey at btormey@wcu.edu.

About Marine Geology

Marine Geology is the premier international journal on marine geological processes in the broadest sense. It publishes papers that are comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and synthetic that will be lasting contributions to the field. Although most papers are based on regional studies, they demonstrate new findings of international significance. Papers cover subjects as diverse as seafloor hydrothermal systems, beach dynamics, early diagenesis, microbiological studies in sediments, palaeoclimate studies, and geophysical studies of the seabed. http://www.journals.elsevier.com/marine-geology

About Elsevier

Elsevier is a global information analytics business that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare and improve performance for the benefit of humanity. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support, and professional education; including ScienceDirect, Scopus, SciVal, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, more than 35,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a global provider of information and analytics for professionals and business customers across industries. http://www.elsevier.com

Media contact

Kristian Wilson
Elsevier
+44 1865 843817
k.wilson@elsevier.com

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