Sea level bonanza

The ups and downs of sea level through geological time constitute a ‘beat’ to which sedimentation responds by inundation of and withdrawal from the land.  The ‘big picture’ is one forced by changes in the volume of the ocean basins as plate tectonics waxed and waned, together with long periods when land ice locked sea water away.  A closer focus has stemmed from the changes of oxygen isotopes in benthonic (bottom-dwelling) plankton remains that record details about advances and retreats of polar land ice, most spectacularly from the record of the Pliocene and Pleistocene. These ongoing, higher frequency fluctuations in sea level formed the key to verifying Milankovich’s theory of astronomical controls over climate.  There are also fluctuations of the order of thousands to tens of thousand years that seem terrestrial in origin, such as the Bond and Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles.  Shorter cycles still have had various causes ascribe to them.  For inhabitants of near-sea level cities and flat ocean islands, rising sea level is a realistic concern. It is rising just now at about 3 mm per year (in the 1950s the annual rise was half that), mainly because surface sea water is expanding as a result of anthropogenic warning and polar ice is melting.

November 2005 was valuable for geoscientists interested in fluctuating sea level, and most sedimentologists are in that category because the stratigraphic record is primarily governed by this eustatic (world-wide) rhythm. The earliest information on long-term sea-level change came from studies of continental transgressions and regressions that are preserved as onlap and offlap features between strata. That approach was greatly aided by detailed seismic sections gathered by petroleum explorationists, in which such features show up a great deal more readily than they do in limited exposures on land. The results of many different methods of charting eustasy are wonderfully summarised by a large team of US geoscientists (Miller, K.G. and 9 others 2005. The Phanerozoic record of global sea-level change. Science, v. 310, p. 1293-1298). Their review covers the last 543 Ma, and reveals several novel aspects. It has been known for over 30 years that the higher frequency sea-level changes correlate well with oxygen isotope records, because of the preferential evaporation of water that contains light 17O. When evaporated ocean water ends up in long-term storage as land ice, the proportion of heavier 18O rises in seawater and in carbonates extracted from it by organisms. The broad view also shows a sea-level – d18O correlation though, and that probably reflects expansion and contraction of the volume of ocean water as mean global temperature rose and fell on the scale of tens of million years. That the Cretaceous was the period during which sea level reached an all time high during the Phanerozoic has been well known for over a century, and manifested itself in the production of giant ‘carbonate factories’ on shallow shelves of inundated continental lowlands. Famously, that was ascribed to vast production of new oceanic crust, both by accelerated sea-floor spreading and outpouring of huge submarine flood basalts, such as the Ontong Java Plateau of the west Pacific floor. Putting together all the pertinent data, however, suggests that Cretaceous tectonics was not nearly as vigorous as once suspected.

Unsurprisingly, sea level studies are ‘hot’ and researchers have a better than even chance of getting publications into press in the most august of journals, and a readership to boot. There is a great deal of information on past and current sea level fluctuations, and a great deal of thought has gone into acquiring data.  Dotted around the world’s coast lines are tide gauges of the most exquisite precision; so precise in fact that the outermost ripples of the Boxing Day tsunamis were detected at the antipode of the earthquake that caused them. Whether or not watching these gauges continuously is a fulfilling task, the long-term records have revealed a surprise (Church, J,A, et al. 2005. Significant decadal-scale impact of volcanic eruptions on sea level and ocean heat content. Nature, v. 438, p. 74-77). Since 1960, global sea level has been up and down like a yo-yo, deviating by ± 2-3 mm from the longer-term mean at a rate measured in decades.  This correlates well with five major volcanic eruptions during the last 45 years, such as El Chichon and Pinatubo. The first effect is a rapid fall (6 mm in a year, after Pinatubo erupted), probably resulting from global cooling and reduced rainfall caused by sulfate aerosols injected into the stratosphere, followed by slow recovery.  It seems odd that volcanoes have a bigger effect on sea level than overall global warming, yet other records show their profound global effects. The fall in sea level must be dominated by shrinkage of cooled surface water. Interesting, and quite possibly a boost for those in denial over global warming. However, my main concern, living at 250 m above mean sea level, is that my bathroom cistern is always overflowing because of a water level rise of 1 mm in a matter of a few minutes.

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