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Fluvial response to abrupt global warming at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary


Climate strongly affects the production of sediment from mountain catchments as well as its transport and deposition within adjacent sedimentary basins1,2,3. However, identifying climatic influences on basin stratigraphy is complicated by nonlinearities, feedback loops, lag times, buffering and convergence among processes within the sediment routeing system3,4. The Palaeocene/Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) arguably represents the most abrupt and dramatic instance of global warming in the Cenozoic era and has been proposed to be a geologic analogue for anthropogenic climate change5. Here we evaluate the fluvial response in western Colorado to the PETM. Concomitant with the carbon isotope excursion marking the PETM we document a basin-wide shift to thick, multistoried, sheets of sandstone characterized by variable channel dimensions, dominance of upper flow regime sedimentary structures, and prevalent crevasse splay deposits. This progradation of coarse-grained lithofacies matches model predictions for rapid increases in sediment flux and discharge1,3, instigated by regional vegetation overturn5,6 and enhanced monsoon precipitation7,8. Yet the change in fluvial deposition persisted long after the approximately 200,000-year-long PETM9 with its increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, emphasizing the strong role the protracted transmission of catchment responses to distant depositional systems has in constructing large-scale basin stratigraphy. Our results, combined with evidence for increased dissolved loads10 and terrestrial clay export5,11,12 to world oceans, indicate that the transient hyper-greenhouse climate of the PETM may represent a major geomorphic ‘system-clearing event’13, involving a global mobilization of dissolved and solid sediment loads on Earth’s surface.

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Figure 1: Generalized geologic map showing major Laramide structures and associated basins.
Figure 2: Stratigraphic section through the middle portion of the Wasatch formation east of the town of DeBeque in Colorado, and the δ 13 C record from dispersed organic carbon.
Figure 3: Box and whisker plots of fluvial data from the Atwell Gulch, Molina and Shire members.
Figure 4: Comparison of provenance and palaeodrainage patterns in the Atwell Gulch, Molina and Shire members.


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We thank personnel at the University of Arizona LaserChron Facility and University of Wyoming Stable Isotope Facility for assistance in analysing detrital zircon and carbon isotope samples. The International Association of Sedimentologists, the Tobacco Root Geological Society, the Colorado Scientific Society, and the Chevron Energy Technology Company provided funding for analyses and fieldwork. The research was completed while on a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium Fellowship to B.Z.F.

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B.Z.F. and P.L.H. designed the study. B.Z.F. collected field data sets. B.Z.F. and M.T.C. carried out isotopic analyses. B.Z.F. wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to the interpretations and conclusions presented.

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Correspondence to Brady Z. Foreman.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Foreman, B., Heller, P. & Clementz, M. Fluvial response to abrupt global warming at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary. Nature 491, 92–95 (2012).

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