Almost 30 years have passed since Richard Foster Flint posed and tentatively answered this question concerning the sea level record since retreat of the late Wisconsin ice sheets (ca. 12,000 BP).1 The breadth of work on late Quaternary (ca. 12,000 BP-present) sea level change (let alone allied glacial and climate variations) undertaken since Flint's query both in detail and in geographic coverage has been prodigious as a glance at the bibliographies of such synthesis volumes by Tooley and Shennan (1987) and Pirazolli (1991) testifies. At present, upward of 500 late Holocene sea level curves exist for various coastal areas worldwide (see Pirazolli, 1991), and the number of dated sea level indicators easily reaches into the thousands. The existing data base of late Holocene sea level change is something Daly (1934), the first to hypothesize the depth of the regression during the last glacial maximum, could only imagine.
The dramatic rise in global sea levels by more than 100 m since the last glacial maximum (ca. 18,000 BP) is universally accepted today. The evidence for this change has been so well described for so many areas (cf. Pirazolli, 1991), and the geophysical models supporting it so persuasive, that a newcomer to the field could be forgiven for thinking there was little left to discover. Nonetheless, in many respects some of the basic questions remain regarding late Holocene sea levels that first intrigued researchers over 30 years ago. The case for sea level fluctuations is far from settled, although the argument today centers less on whether sea level variations actually occurred and more on the reliability of the evidence for them. Even the notion of generally higher sea levels than present during the middle Holocene warm period (ca. 8000-5000 BP) is still discounted by some researchers. In this chapter, the U.S. Atlantic Coast will be used to trace the history of sea level rise during the late Holocene, focusing on the record of the last several thousand years
1 BP means radiocarbon years "before present," present being 1950 AD.
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as an example of the relations between climate and sea level. But first, since the nature and quality of the evidence for past sea level change have often informed the discussion of how sea level varied in the past, it is worthwhile to review how the evidence was gathered.
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