Tropical Coral Fossils May Reveal the Fate of Polar Ice

A waterfall cascades to the sea.

The Polar Ice Paradox is arguably one of the most important environmental events of our century. While the tropical islands of the Seychelles could not feel farther from the Antarctic, a recent article by scientists at the University of Florida suggests fossil corals could reveal much about the fate of the polar ice sheets.

About 125,000 years ago, the average global temperature was only slightly warmer, but sea levels rose high enough to submerge the locations of many of today’s coastal cities. With more than a billion people living in low-lying coastal regions, understanding what caused seas to rise then could shed light on how to protect those cities today.

University of Florida geochemist, Andrea Dutton, found evidence in fossil corals that the average global sea level during that period peaked 20 to 30 feet above current levels. Dutton’s team of international researchers concluded that rapid retreat of an unstable part of the Antarctic ice sheet was a major contributor to that sea-level rise.

In an article published in the January 2015 issue of Quaternary Science Reviews, the researchers concluded that while sea-level rise in the Last Interglacial period was driven by the same processes active today – thermal expansion of seawater, melting mountain glaciers and melting polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica – most was driven by polar ice sheet melt.

Their study, partially funded by the National Science Foundation, also suggests the Antarctic ice sheet partially collapsed early in that period.

“Following a rapid transition to high sea levels when the last interglacial period began, sea level continued rising steadily,” Dutton said. “The collapse of Antarctic ice occurred when the Polar Regions were a few degrees warmer than they are now — temperatures that we are likely to reach within a matter of decades.”

Several recent studies by other researchers suggest that process may have already started.

“We could be poised for another partial collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet,” Dutton said.

Image Credit: KEENPRESS Photography

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Kira Coley
​​​​I am a freelance writer specialising in science, technology and the environment. My work has featured in many of the top professional industry magazines including the 'Marine Technology Reporter', 'Marine Scientist', 'ECO Magazine' and 'International Ocean Systems'. I write to share the fascinating wonders of science with the world and highlight the importance of technological advancements in this era of science, discovery and exploration. I have worked in many locations as a marine researcher including Sicily, Madagascar and Scotland, as well as for charities, NGOs and marine technology specialists all over the UK. I have also been recently appointed as a lecturer in science communication at the University of Portsmouth. Follow me on twitter @KiraMColey

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