Abstract

Because it lies at the intersection of Earth’s solid, liquid, and gaseous components, sea level links the dynamics of the fluid part of the planet with those of the solid part of the planet. Here, I review the past quarter century of sea-level research and show that the solid components of Earth exert a controlling influence on the amplitudes and patterns of sea-level change across time scales ranging from years to billions of years. On the shortest time scales (100–102 yr), elastic deformation causes the ground surface to uplift instantaneously near deglaciating areas while the sea surface depresses due to diminished gravitational attraction. This produces spatial variations in rates of relative sea-level change (measured relative to the ground surface), with amplitudes of several millimeters per year. These sea-level “fingerprints” are characteristic of (and may help identify) the deglaciation source, and they can have significant societal importance because they will control rates of coastal inundation in the coming century. On time scales of 103–105 yr, the solid Earth’s time-dependent viscous response to deglaciation also produces spatially varying patterns of relative sea-level change, with centimeters-per-year amplitude, that depend on the time-history of deglaciation. These variations, on average, cause net seafloor subsidence and therefore global sea-level drop. On time scales of 106–108 yr, convection of Earth’s mantle also supports long-wavelength topographic relief that changes as continents migrate and mantle flow patterns evolve. This changing “dynamic topography” causes meters per millions of years of relative sea-level change, even along seemingly “stable” continental margins, which affects all stratigraphic records of Phanerozoic sea level. Nevertheless, several such records indicate sea-level drop of ∼230 m since a mid-Cretaceous highstand, when continental transgressions were occurring worldwide. This global drop results from several factors that combine to expand the “container” volume of the ocean basins. Most importantly, ridge volume decrease since the mid-Cretaceous, caused by an ∼50% slowdown in seafloor spreading rate documented by tectonic reconstructions, explains ∼250 m of sea-level fall. These tectonic changes have been accompanied by a decline in the volume of volcanic edifices on Pacific seafloor, continental convergence above the former Tethys Ocean, and the onset of glaciation, which dropped sea level by ∼40, ∼20, and ∼60 m, respectively. These drops were approximately offset by an increase in the volume of Atlantic sediments and net seafloor uplift by dynamic topography, which each elevated sea level by ∼60 m. Across supercontinental cycles, expected variations in ridge volume, dynamic topography, and continental compression together roughly explain observed sea-level variations throughout Pangean assembly and dispersal. On the longest time scales (109 yr), sea level may change as ocean water is exchanged with reservoirs stored by hydrous minerals within the mantle interior. Mantle cooling during the past few billion years may have accelerated drainage down subduction zones and decreased degassing at mid-ocean ridges, causing enough sea-level drop to impact the Phanerozoic sea-level budget. For all time scales, future advances in the study of sea-level change will result from improved observations of lateral variations in sea-level change, and a better understanding of the solid Earth deformations that cause them.

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