IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

6.3.3 What Does the Record of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum Show?

Approximately 55 Ma, an abrupt warming (in this case of the order of 1 to 10 kyr) by several degrees celsius is indicated by changes in 18O isotope and Mg/Ca records (Kennett and Stott, 1991; Zachos et al., 2003; Tripati and Elderfield, 2004). The warming and associated environmental impact was felt at all latitudes, and in both the surface and deep ocean. The warmth lasted approximately 100 kyr. Evidence for shifts in global precipitation patterns is present in a variety of fossil records including vegetation (Wing et al., 2005). The climate anomaly, along with an accompanying carbon isotope excursion, occurred at the boundary between the Palaeocene and Eocene epochs, and is therefore often referred to as the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). The thermal maximum clearly stands out in high-resolution records of that time (Figure 6.2). At the same time, 13C isotopes in marine and continental records show that a large mass of carbon with low 13C concentration must have been released into the atmosphere and ocean. The mass of carbon was sufficiently large to lower the pH of the ocean and drive widespread dissolution of seafloor carbonates (Zachos et al., 2005). Possible sources for this carbon could have been methane (CH4) from decomposition of clathrates on the sea floor, CO2 from volcanic activity, or oxidation of sediments rich in organic matter (Dickens et al., 1997; Kurtz et al., 2003; Svensen et al., 2004). The PETM, which altered ecosystems worldwide (Koch et al., 1992; Bowen et al., 2002; Bralower, 2002; Crouch et al., 2003; Thomas, 2003; Bowen et al., 2004; Harrington et al., 2004), is being intensively studied as it has some similarity with the ongoing rapid release of carbon into the atmosphere by humans. The estimated magnitude of carbon release for this time period is of the order of 1 to 2 × 1018 g of carbon (Dickens et al., 1997), a similar magnitude to that associated with greenhouse gas releases during the coming century. Moreover, the period of recovery through natural carbon sequestration processes, about 100 kyr, is similar to that forecast for the future. As in the case of the Pliocene, the high-latitude warming during this event was substantial (~20°C; Moran et al., 2006) and considerably higher than produced by GCM simulations for the event (Sluijs et al., 2006) or in general for increased greenhouse gas experiments (Chapter 10). Although there is still too much uncertainty in the data to derive a quantitative estimate of climate sensitivity from the PETM, the event is a striking example of massive carbon release and related extreme climatic warming.

Figure 6.2

Figure 6.2. The Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum as recorded in benthic (bottom dwelling) foraminifer (Nuttallides truempyi) isotopic records from sites in the Antarctic, south Atlantic and Pacific (see Zachos et al., 2003 for details). The rapid decrease in carbon isotope ratios in the top panel is indicative of a large increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases CO2 and CH4 that was coincident with an approximately 5°C global warming (centre panel). Using the carbon isotope records, numerical models show that CH4 released by the rapid decomposition of marine hydrates might have been a major component (~2,000 GtC) of the carbon flux (Dickens and Owen, 1996). Testing of this and other models requires an independent constraint on the carbon fluxes. In theory, much of the additional greenhouse carbon would have been absorbed by the ocean, thereby lowering seawater pH and causing widespread dissolution of seafloor carbonates. Such a response is evident in the lower panel, which shows a transient reduction in the carbonate (CaCO3) content of sediments in two cores from the south Atlantic (Zachos et al., 2004, 2005). The observed patterns indicate that the ocean’s carbonate saturation horizon rapidly shoaled more than 2 km, and then gradually recovered as buffering processes slowly restored the chemical balance of the ocean. Initially, most of the carbonate dissolution is of sediment deposited prior to the event, a process that offsets the apparent timing of the dissolution horizon relative to the base of the benthic foraminifer carbon isotope excursion. Model simulations show that the recovery of the carbonate saturation horizon should precede the recovery in the carbon isotopes by as much as 100 kyr (Dickens and Owen, 1996), another feature that is evident in the sediment records.