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Warm tropical ocean surface and global anoxia during the mid-Cretaceous period

Abstract

The middle of the Cretaceous period (about 120 to 80 Myr ago) was a time of unusually warm polar temperatures1, repeated reef-drowning in the tropics2 and a series of oceanic anoxic events (OAEs) that promoted both the widespread deposition of organic-carbon-rich marine sediments and high biological turnover3,4,5,6,7,8. The cause of the warm temperatures is unproven but widely attributed to high levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide7,8,9,10,11,12. In contrast, there is no consensus on the climatic causes and effects of the OAEs, with both high biological productivity and ocean ‘stagnation’ being invoked as the cause of ocean anoxia3,4,5,6,7,8. Here we show, using stable isotope records from multiple species of well-preserved foraminifera, that the thermal structure of surface waters in the western tropical Atlantic Ocean underwent pronounced variability about 100 Myr ago, with maximum sea surface temperatures 3–5 °C warmer than today. This variability culminated in a collapse of upper-ocean stratification during OAE-1d (the ‘Breistroffer’ event), a globally significant period of organic-carbon burial that we show to have fundamental, stratigraphically valuable, geochemical similarities to the main OAEs of the Mesozoic era. Our records are consistent with greenhouse forcing being responsible for the warm temperatures, but are inconsistent both with explanations for OAEs based on ocean stagnation, and with the traditional view (reviewed in ref. 12) that past warm periods were more stable than today's climate.

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Figure 1: Reconstruction of the mid-Cretaceous (Albian)27 period, showing the global location of sites with well-dated sections correlative to the upper Albian Breistroffer oceanic anoxic event.
Figure 2: Mid-Cretaceous (late Albian to early Cenomanian) records from ODP Site 1052, Blake nose, western Atlantic.
Figure 3: Expanded (550-kyr) δ18O and temperature records from ODP Site 1052.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Cooper, M. Hall and K. Davis for laboratory assistance and manuscript production; M. Arthur and E. Barron for comments on the manuscript; and D. Kroon, H. Elderfield, J. Erbacher, B. Huber, L. Kump, B. Opdyke, C. Poulsen, G. Ravizza, E. Rohling and N. Shackleton for support and discussions. This work was supported by a NERC post-doctoral research fellowship and a UK ODP rapid response grant.

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Wilson, P., Norris, R. Warm tropical ocean surface and global anoxia during the mid-Cretaceous period. Nature 412, 425–429 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35086553

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