In 1961 Rhodes Fairbridge published what has become the most widely known curve for global changes in middle to late Holocene sea levels (Fairbridge, 1961; Fig. 2.5). Though Fairbridge long ago acknowledged the "primitive" character of early versions of the curve (Fairbridge, 1995), which led to a number of revisions (cf. Fairbridge, 1976), it is still the notion of oscillating sea levels so boldly presented in his original curve that sparks debate. As recently as the late 1980s, the "straw man" of the 1961 curve was argued in juxtaposition to the portrayal of a smooth, continuous rise in late Holocene sea levels to which most sea level data for the U.S. Atlantic Coast appear to conform (Cronin, 1987).
However, in recent years the argument of smooth versus fluctuating sea levels may have become passé. How could it be otherwise, with gathering evidence for late Holocene sea level variation documented in new approaches not available a decade ago (Varekamp et al., 1992; Kearney and Stevenson, 1991); new, convincing support for the concept of cycles in late Holocene climate (Finkl, 1995); and the growing appreciation of the propensity of the "climate machine" to abrupt shifts in state? In spite of all this, it is instructive to examine how these differing views of late Holocene sea level change came about, and what they mean for understanding the relations between climate and sea level.
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