High sea-surface temperatures during the Early Cretaceous Epoch

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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The Early Cretaceous Epoch, about 145–100 million years ago, is generally thought of as a greenhouse period, with high atmospheric CO2 concentrations1 and high global mean temperatures2. But evidence for episodes of cooler conditions, and even transient glaciations, has been proposed3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Here we present sea-surface temperature records spanning the period from 142 to 128 million years ago (Berriasian–Barremian ages) from low and mid latitudes, reconstructed using the TEX86 palaeotemperature proxy. During this period, we find sea-surface temperatures exceeding 32°C at 15°–20°N and averaging 26°C at ~53°S. These temperatures substantially exceed modern temperatures at equivalent latitudes, and are incompatible with the notion of consistently cooler conditions in the earliest Cretaceous. Moreover, we find little variability in the sea-surface temperature records, even during the Valanginian carbon-isotope excursion ~138–135 million years ago, which was thought to be associated with marked temperature fluctuations5. We conclude that the earliest Cretaceous was characterized by a warm, stable climate, with a lower meridional temperature gradient than today.

At a glance


  1. Simplified palaeogeographic reconstruction of the Early Hauterivian ([sim]133[thinsp]Myr).
    Figure 1: Simplified palaeogeographic reconstruction of the Early Hauterivian (~133Myr).

    Adapted from Ocean Drilling Stratigraphic Network (ODSN) Paleomap project (http://www.odsn.de/odsn/services/paleomap/paleomap.html). DSDP/ODP sites sampled in this study shown as black circles.

  2. TEX86 data.
    Figure 2: TEX86 data.

    Berr=Berriasian,NF=NannofossilZone. Temperature on X-axis is SST (°C) calibrated according to (a) logarithmic equation (TEX86H; ref. 13) and (b) reciprocal equation (1/TEX86; ref. 13). Analytical error in TEX86 (black bar) is ±0.012. Calibration error for the logarithmic calibration is ±2.5°C, and for the reciprocal calibration is ±5.4°C (see Supplementary Information). Cores plotted against depth shown in Supplementary Fig. S2. Western Atlantic δ13Ccarb record for Sites 534 and 603 (ref. 26), with additional data from this study. Bracketed numbers in Key (for example 15°N) represent approximate palaeolatitude of sites at ~133Myr. Blue lines in evidence for cooling panel represent inferred cooler intervals from earlier studies.

  3. Meridional temperature gradients.
    Figure 3: Meridional temperature gradients.

    a TEX86 ratios for modern core-top calibration set13 and average Early Cretaceous (Hauterivian) values. b, Hauterivian SSTs (red symbols; a, a’ and a”) compared to Early Eocene (green symbols), Late Cretaceous (blue symbols) and Early Barremian (red circle) average TEX86 SST estimates, recalibrated according to logarithmic equation (TEX86H; ref. 13). Early Barremian, NW Germany (b; ref. 11); Site 1259, Turonian (c; ref. 16); Cenomanian-Turonian at Sites 367 (d; ref. 17) and 603 (e; ref. 17); Early Eocene data from the Tasman Plateau (f; ref. 20), New Zealand (g; ref. 21), Tanzania (h; ref. 15) and New Jersey (i; ref. 22; peak Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum SST is shown as i’). c, As for b but all data recalibrated after reciprocal equation (1/TEX86; ref. 13). Error bars indicate the total range of values in each dataset.


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Author information


  1. Department of Earth Sciences, University College London, WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Kate Littler,
    • Stuart A. Robinson,
    • Paul R. Bown &
    • Alexandra J. Nederbragt
  2. Organic Geochemistry Unit, Bristol Biogeochemistry Research Centre, University of Bristol, BS8 1TS, UK

    • Richard D. Pancost


Core sampling was carried out by K.L. and S.A.R. TEX86 analysis was performed by K.L. with assistance from A.J.N. Carbon-isotope data was generated by K.L. with assistance from S.A.R. Organic geochemical maturation index data was generated by R.D.P. Manuscript was written by K.L., S.A.R., P.R.B. and R.D.P. The manuscript incorporates comments on content and structure from all authors.

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