Letters to Nature

Nature 432, 495-499 (25 November 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature03115; Received 25 March 2004; Accepted 12 October 2004

A humid climate state during the Palaeocene/Eocene thermal maximum

Gabriel J. Bowen1,3, David J. Beerling2, Paul L. Koch1, James C. Zachos1 & Thomas Quattlebaum1

  1. Earth Sciences Department, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA
  2. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK
  3. Present address: Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA

Correspondence to: Gabriel J. Bowen1,3 Email: gbowen@biology.utah.edu

An abrupt climate warming of 5 to 10 °C during the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary thermal maximum (PETM) 55 Myr ago is linked to the catastrophic release of approx1,050–2,100 Gt of carbon from sea-floor methane hydrate reservoirs1. Although atmospheric methane, and the carbon dioxide derived from its oxidation, probably contributed to PETM warming, neither the magnitude nor the timing of the climate change is consistent with direct greenhouse forcing by the carbon derived from methane hydrate. Here we demonstrate significant differences between marine2, 3 and terrestrial4, 5, 6 carbon isotope records spanning the PETM. We use models of key carbon cycle processes7, 8, 9 to identify the cause of these differences. Our results provide evidence for a previously unrecognized discrete shift in the state of the climate system during the PETM, characterized by large increases in mid-latitude tropospheric humidity and enhanced cycling of carbon through terrestrial ecosystems. A more humid atmosphere helps to explain PETM temperatures, but the ultimate mechanisms underlying the shift remain unknown.

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