Sea level is projected to rise between 13 and 94 cm over the next 100 yr due to continued climate warming. The sea-level projections assume that polar ice sheets will remain stable or even increase on time scales of centuries, but controversial geologic evidence suggests that current polar ice sheets have been eliminated or greatly reduced during previous Pleistocene interglacials indicating that modern polar ice sheets have become unstable within the natural range of interglacial climates. Sea level may have been more than 20 m higher than today during a presumably very warm interglacial about 400 ka during marine isotope stage 11. Because of the implications for future sea level rise, additional study of the conflicting evidence for warmer conditions and higher sea level during marine isotope stage 11 is needed. Here we present microfossil and isotopic data from marine sediments of the Cariaco Basin supporting the interpretation that global sea level was 10–20 m higher than today during marine isotope stage 11. The increased sea level requires reduction in modern polar ice sheets and is consistent with the interpretation that the West Antarctic ice sheet and the Greenland ice sheet were absent or greatly reduced during marine isotope stage 11. Our results show a warm marine isotope stage 11 interglacial climate with sea level as high as or above modern sea level that lasted for 25 to 30 k.y. Variations in Earth's orbit around the sun (Milankovitch cycles) are considered to be a primary external force driving glacial-interglacial cycles. Current and marine isotope stage 11 Milankovitch forcing are very similar, suggesting that the present interglacial (Holocene) that began ca. 10 ka will continue for another 15 to 20 k.y. Therefore any anthropogenic climate warming will accelerate the natural process toward reduction in polar ice sheets. The potential for increased rates of sea level rise related to polar ice sheet decay should be considered as a potential natural hazard on centennial time scales.

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