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Release of methane from a volcanic basin as a mechanism for initial Eocene global warming


A 200,000-yr interval of extreme global warming marked the start of the Eocene epoch about 55 million years ago. Negative carbon- and oxygen-isotope excursions in marine and terrestrial sediments show that this event was linked to a massive and rapid (10,000 yr) input of isotopically depleted carbon1,2. It has been suggested previously that extensive melting of gas hydrates buried in marine sediments may represent the carbon source3,4 and has caused the global climate change. Large-scale hydrate melting, however, requires a hitherto unknown triggering mechanism. Here we present evidence for the presence of thousands of hydrothermal vent complexes identified on seismic reflection profiles from the Vøring and Møre basins in the Norwegian Sea. We propose that intrusion of voluminous mantle-derived melts in carbon-rich sedimentary strata in the northeast Atlantic may have caused an explosive release of methane—transported to the ocean or atmosphere through the vent complexes—close to the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary. Similar volcanic and metamorphic processes may explain climate events associated with other large igneous provinces such as the Siberian Traps (250 million years ago) and the Karoo Igneous Province (183 million years ago).

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Figure 1: Distribution of hydrothermal vent complexes and volcanic intrusive and extrusive complexes on the mid-Norwegian continental margin.
Figure 2: Seismic example of hydrothermal vent complexes in the southeast Vøring Basin.
Figure 3: Schematic line drawing of a seismic profile across the hydrothermal vent complex drilled by 6607/12-1. A vertical zone of disturbed seismic data is interpreted as a conduit zone connecting the tip of a sill intrusion with the palaeo-surface.
Figure 4: Estimated methane production potential of the Vøring and Møre basins.

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This study was supported by grants (H.S. and B.J.) from the Norwegian Research Council. We thank TGS-NOPEC for access to seismic data, H. Selnes for the biostratigraphic dating, and G. R. Dickens and J. G. Feder for comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Henrik Svensen or Sverre Planke.

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Svensen, H., Planke, S., Malthe-Sørenssen, A. et al. Release of methane from a volcanic basin as a mechanism for initial Eocene global warming. Nature 429, 542–545 (2004).

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