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Environmental precursors to rapid light carbon injection at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary


The start of the Palaeocene/Eocene thermal maximum—a period of exceptional global warming about 55 million years ago—is marked by a prominent negative carbon isotope excursion that reflects a massive input of 13C-depleted (‘light’) carbon to the ocean–atmosphere system1. It is often assumed2 that this carbon injection initiated the rapid increase in global surface temperatures and environmental change that characterize the climate perturbation3,4,5,6,7, but the exact sequence of events remains uncertain. Here we present chemical and biotic records of environmental change across the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary from two sediment sections in New Jersey that have high sediment accumulation rates. We show that the onsets of environmental change (as recorded by the abundant occurrence (‘acme’) of the dinoflagellate cyst Apectodinium) and of surface-ocean warming (as evidenced by the palaeothermometer TEX86) preceded the light carbon injection by several thousand years. The onset of the Apectodinium acme also precedes the carbon isotope excursion in sections from the southwest Pacific Ocean8 and the North Sea, indicating that the early onset of environmental change was not confined to the New Jersey shelf. The lag of 3,000 years between the onset of warming in New Jersey shelf waters and the carbon isotope excursion is consistent with the hypothesis that bottom water warming caused the injection of 13C-depleted carbon by triggering the dissociation of submarine methane hydrates1,9,10, but the cause of the early warming remains uncertain.

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Figure 1: Location of the studied sites.
Figure 2: High-resolution records across the onset of the PETM at the New Jersey Shelf Sites.


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This research used samples and/or data provided by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. A.S. thanks the Utrecht Biogeology Center, the LPP Foundation and The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO, VENI-grant) and J.C.Z. thanks the National Science Foundation for funding. E. Hopmans and A. Mets (NIOZ) are thanked for analytical assistance with TEX86 measurements. A. van Dijk, E. van Bentum, C. Blaga, R. Deltrap, D. Menzel, G. Nobbe, J. van Tongeren, N. Welters (all Utrecht University) and D. Andreason and T. Quattlebaum (UC Santa Cruz) are thanked for advice and support regarding analyses. We thank J. Browning, K. Miller, J. Firth and G. Esmay for help regarding the logistics around sampling the Bass River section and E. Thomas for sampling the Wilson Lake section. ConocoPhillips, P. van Veen in particular, is thanked for enabling us to use their North Sea cores. I. Harding, M. Huber, L. Lourens and M. Pagani are thanked for discussions.

Author Contributions A.S., H.B. and J.C.Z. designed the research, A.S. and H.B. carried out the palynology, A.S., G.-J.R. and H.B. the δ13CDINO and δ13CTOC analyses, A.S., S.S., G.J.R. and J.S.S.D. the TEX86 analyses. S.M.B., C.M.J. and J.C.Z. generated the isotope data on carbonate. All authors contributed to interpreting the data and writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Appy Sluijs.

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Sluijs, A., Brinkhuis, H., Schouten, S. et al. Environmental precursors to rapid light carbon injection at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary. Nature 450, 1218–1221 (2007).

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