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Early Palaeogene temperature evolution of the southwest Pacific Ocean


Relative to the present day, meridional temperature gradients in the Early Eocene age (56–53 Myr ago) were unusually low, with slightly warmer equatorial regions1 but with much warmer subtropical Arctic2 and mid-latitude3 climates. By the end of the Eocene epoch (34 Myr ago), the first major Antarctic ice sheets had appeared4,5, suggesting that major cooling had taken place. Yet the global transition into this icehouse climate remains poorly constrained, as only a few temperature records are available portraying the Cenozoic climatic evolution of the high southern latitudes. Here we present a uniquely continuous and chronostratigraphically well-calibrated TEX86 record of sea surface temperature (SST) from an ocean sediment core in the East Tasman Plateau (palaeolatitude 65° S). We show that southwest Pacific SSTs rose above present-day tropical values (to 34 °C) during the Early Eocene age (53 Myr ago) and had gradually decreased to about 21 °C by the early Late Eocene age (36 Myr ago). Our results imply that there was almost no latitudinal SST gradient between subequatorial and subpolar regions during the Early Eocene age (55–50 Myr ago). Thereafter, the latitudinal gradient markedly increased. In theory, if Eocene cooling was largely driven by a decrease in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration6, additional processes are required to explain the relative stability of tropical SSTs given that there was more significant cooling at higher latitudes.

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Figure 1: Site location and surface currents.
Figure 2: Palaeogene deep-sea and sea surface temperatures.
Figure 3: Early and Middle Eocene latitudinal SST gradients.


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Funding for this research was provided by Utrecht University, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (VICI grant to S.S.; VENI grant to A.S.) and the LPP Foundation. This research used samples and data provided by the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP). The ODP was sponsored by the US National Science Foundation and participating countries under the management of Joint Oceanographic Institutions, Inc. G. Nobbe, E. van Bentum, E. Speelman, J. Ossebaar, A. Mets and E. Hopmans are thanked for technical support. We acknowledge C. J. Hollis, P. N. Pearson and P. F. Sexton for providing published data. A. J. P. (Sander) Houben, P. N. Pearson and M. Huber are thanked for critical comments.

Author Contributions P.K.B., S.S., H.B. and A.S. designed the research, P.K.B and S.S. performed the organic geochemical analyses; P.K.B. updated the age model for ODP Site 1172 and performed the data compilations. All authors contributed to interpreting the data and writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Peter K. Bijl.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Figures S1-S4 with Legends, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Methods and Data and Supplementary References. (PDF 1422 kb)

Supplementary Data

This table shows TEX86 index values and SST reconstructions for ODP Site 1172 in depth (mbsf) and age (Myrs ago). (XLS 41 kb)

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Bijl, P., Schouten, S., Sluijs, A. et al. Early Palaeogene temperature evolution of the southwest Pacific Ocean. Nature 461, 776–779 (2009).

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