Letter | Published:

Very large release of mostly volcanic carbon during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum

Nature volume 548, pages 573577 (31 August 2017) | Download Citation

Abstract

The Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum1,2 (PETM) was a global warming event that occurred about 56 million years ago, and is commonly thought to have been driven primarily by the destabilization of carbon from surface sedimentary reservoirs such as methane hydrates3. However, it remains controversial whether such reservoirs were indeed the source of the carbon that drove the warming1,3,4,5. Resolving this issue is key to understanding the proximal cause of the warming, and to quantifying the roles of triggers versus feedbacks. Here we present boron isotope data—a proxy for seawater pH—that show that the ocean surface pH was persistently low during the PETM. We combine our pH data with a paired carbon isotope record in an Earth system model in order to reconstruct the unfolding carbon-cycle dynamics during the event6,7. We find strong evidence for a much larger (more than 10,000 petagrams)—and, on average, isotopically heavier—carbon source than considered previously8,9. This leads us to identify volcanism associated with the North Atlantic Igneous Province10,11, rather than carbon from a surface reservoir, as the main driver of the PETM. This finding implies that climate-driven amplification of organic carbon feedbacks probably played only a minor part in driving the event. However, we find that enhanced burial of organic matter seems to have been important in eventually sequestering the released carbon and accelerating the recovery of the Earth system12.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    & The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum: a perturbation of carbon cycle, climate, and biosphere with implications for the future. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 39, 489–516 (2011)

  2. 2.

    et al. Climate model and proxy data constraints on ocean warming across the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Earth Sci. Rev. 125, 123–145 (2013)

  3. 3.

    , , & Dissociation of oceanic methane hydrate as a cause of the carbon isotope excursion at the end of the Paleocene. Paleoceanography 10, 965–971 (1995)

  4. 4.

    et al. Past extreme warming events linked to massive carbon release from thawing permafrost. Nature 484, 87–91 (2012)

  5. 5.

    & Beyond methane: towards a theory for the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 245, 523–537 (2006)

  6. 6.

    & Past constraints on the vulnerability of marine calcifiers to massive carbon dioxide release. Nat. Geosci. 3, 196–200 (2010)

  7. 7.

    et al. Slow release of fossil carbon during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Nat. Geosci. 4, 481–485 (2011)

  8. 8.

    , & Carbon dioxide forcing alone insufficient to explain Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum warming. Nat. Geosci. 2, 576–580 (2009)

  9. 9.

    et al. Thermogenic methane release as a cause for the long duration of the PETM. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 12059–12064 (2016)

  10. 10.

    et al. Release of methane from a volcanic basin as a mechanism for initial Eocene global warming. Nature 429, 542–545 (2004)

  11. 11.

    , & Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum and the opening of the Northeast Atlantic. Science 316, 587–589 (2007)

  12. 12.

    & Rapid carbon sequestration at the termination of the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Nat. Geosci. 3, 866–869 (2010)

  13. 13.

    et al. Making sense of palaeoclimate sensitivity. Nature 491, 683–691 (2012)

  14. 14.

    et al. Ocean warming, not acidification, controlled coccolithophore response during past greenhouse climate change. Geology 44, 59–62 (2016)

  15. 15.

    et al. The geological record of ocean acidification. Science 335, 1058–1063 (2012)

  16. 16.

    et al. Constraints on the numerical age of the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 12, Q0AA17 (2011)

  17. 17.

    et al. Global carbon budget 2016. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 8, 605–649 (2016)

  18. 18.

    , , , & Impact ejecta at the Paleocene–Eocene boundary. Science 354, 225–229 (2016)

  19. 19.

    , , & Geochemical evidence for volcanic activity prior to and enhanced terrestrial weathering during the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 119, 391–410 (2013)

  20. 20.

    , , , & Rapid and sustained surface ocean acidification during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Paleoceanography 29, 357–369 (2014)

  21. 21.

    et al. Changing atmospheric CO2 concentration was the primary driver of early Cenozoic climate. Nature 533, 380–384 (2016)

  22. 22.

    & Reconciliation of marine and terrestrial carbon isotope excursions based on changing atmospheric CO2 levels. Nat. Commun. 4, 1653 (2013)

  23. 23.

    et al. An abyssal carbonate compensation depth overshoot in the aftermath of the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Nat. Geosci. 9, 575–580 (2016)

  24. 24.

    & Development of a novel empirical framework for interpreting geological carbon isotope excursions, with implications for the rate of carbon injection across the PETM. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 435, 1–13 (2016)

  25. 25.

    , , & On the duration of the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM). Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 8, Q12002 (2007)

  26. 26.

    , & Zircon dating ties NE Atlantic sill emplacement to initial Eocene global warming. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 167, 433–436 (2010)

  27. 27.

    Two LIPs and two Earth-system crises: the impact of the North Atlantic Igneous Province and the Siberian Traps on the Earth-surface carbon cycle. Geol. Mag. 153, 201–222 (2016)

  28. 28.

    Peraluminous igneous rocks as an indicator of thermogenic methane release from the North Atlantic Volcanic Province at the time of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Bull. Volcanol. 75, 1–5 (2013)

  29. 29.

    et al. Carbon sequestration during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum by an efficient biological pump. Nat. Geosci. 7, 382–388 (2014)

  30. 30.

    , & Seawater oxygenation during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Geology 40, 639–642 (2012)

  31. 31.

    Cretaceous anoxic events—from continents to oceans. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 137, 171–188 (1980)

  32. 32.

    , , & Persistence of carbon release events through the peak of early Eocene global warmth. Nat. Geosci. 7, 748–751 (2014)

  33. 33.

    et al. Calcium isotope constraints on the end-Permian mass extinction. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 8543–8548 (2010)

  34. 34.

    , , & Planktic foraminiferal turnover across the Paleocene–Eocene transition at DSDP site 401, Bay of Biscay, North Atlantic. Mar. Micropaleontol. 29, 129–158 (1997)

  35. 35.

    et al. Persistent environmental change after the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum in the eastern North Atlantic. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 394, 70–81 (2014)

  36. 36.

    , & Microstructural and geochemical perspectives on planktic foraminiferal preservation: “glassy” versus “frosty”. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7, Q12P19 (2006)

  37. 37.

    Seawater pH, pCO2 and [CO32−] variations in the Caribbean Sea over the last 130 kyr: a boron isotope and B/Ca study of planktic forminifera. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 271, 254–266 (2008)

  38. 38.

    et al. Interlaboratory comparison of boron isotope analyses of boric acid, seawater and marine CaCO3 by MC-ICPMS and NTIMS. Chem. Geol. 358, 1–14 (2013)

  39. 39.

    , & A study of cleaning procedures used for foraminiferal Mg/Ca paleothermometry. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 4, 8407 (2003)

  40. 40.

    et al. Calibration of the boron isotope proxy in the planktonic foraminifera Globigerinoides ruber for use in palaeo-CO2 reconstruction. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 364, 111–122 (2013)

  41. 41.

    & Abrupt reversal in ocean overturning during the Palaeocene/Eocene warm period. Nature 439, 60–63 (2006)

  42. 42.

    , , & Empirical relationship between pH and the boron isotopic composition of Globigerinoides sacculifer: implications for the boron isotope paleo-pH proxy. Paleoceanography 16, 515–519 (2001)

  43. 43.

    et al. Boron isotope evidence for oceanic carbon dioxide leakage during the last deglaciation. Nature 518, 219–222 (2015)

  44. 44.

    , , & Vital effects in foraminifera do not compromise the use of delta B-11 as a paleo-pH indicator: evidence from modeling. Paleoceanography 18, 1043 (2003)

  45. 45.

    et al. The influence of symbiont photosynthesis on the boron isotopic composition of foraminifera shells. Mar. Micropaleontol. 49, 87–96 (2003)

  46. 46.

    & Reconstructing ocean pH with boron isotopes in foraminifera. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 44, 207–237 (2016)

  47. 47.

    , , , & Experimental measurement of boron isotope fractionation in seawater. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 248, 276–285 (2006)

  48. 48.

    et al. A new boron isotope-pH calibration for Orbulina universa, with implications for understanding and accounting for ‘vital effects’. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 454, 282–292 (2016)

  49. 49.

    & Equilibrium and nonequilibrium oxygen isotope effects in synthetic carbonates. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 61, 3461–3475 (1997)

  50. 50.

    et al. Modelling the oxygen isotope distribution of ancient seawater using a coupled ocean-atmosphere GCM: implications for reconstructing early Eocene climate. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 292, 265–273 (2010)

  51. 51.

    & Deep time foraminifera Mg/Ca paleothermometry: nonlinear correction for secular change in seawater Mg/Ca. Paleoceanography 27, PA4205 (2012)

  52. 52.

    & Boron isotope exchange between seawater and the oceanic crust. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 51, 1033–1043 (1987)

  53. 53.

    , , & Boron isotope systematics in large rivers: implications for the marine boron budget and paleo-pH reconstruction over the Cenozoic. Chem. Geol. 190, 123–140 (2002)

  54. 54.

    , & Macintosh program performs time-series analysis. EOS 77, 379 (1996)

  55. 55.

    et al. Mode and tempo of the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum in an expanded section from the Venetian pre-Alps. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 119, 391–412 (2007)

  56. 56.

    , , & New chronology for the late Paleocene thermal maximum and its environmental implications. Geology 28, 927–930 (2000)

  57. 57.

    & An alternative age model for the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum using extraterrestrial He-3. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 208, 135–148 (2003)

  58. 58.

    & Evidence for a rapid release of carbon at the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 15908–15913 (2013)

  59. 59.

    , , , & Onset of carbon isotope excursion at the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum took millennia, not 13 years. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, E1062–E1063 (2014)

  60. 60.

    & Layering in the Paleocene/Eocene boundary of the Millville core is drilling disturbance. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, E1064–E1065 (2014)

  61. 61.

    , & Unsettled puzzle of the Marlboro clays. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, E1066–E1067 (2014)

  62. 62.

    & Reply to Pearson and Nicholas, Stassen et al., and Zeebe et al.: Teasing out the missing piece of the PETM puzzle. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, E1068–E1071 (2014)

  63. 63.

    & Drilling disturbance and constraints on the onset of the Paleocene–Eocene boundary carbon isotope excursion in New Jersey. Clim. Past 11, 95–104 (2015)

  64. 64.

    , & Anthropogenic carbon release rate unprecedented during the past 66 million years. Nat. Geosci. 9, 325–329 (2016)

  65. 65.

    The effect of silicate weathering on global temperature and atmospheric CO2. J. Geophys. Res. 96, 18101–18106 (1991)

  66. 66.

    & Uncertainties due to transport-parameter sensitivity in an efficient 3-D ocean-climate model. Clim. Dyn. 24, 415–433 (2005)

  67. 67.

    et al. Marine geochemical data assimilation in an efficient Earth system model of global biogeochemical cycling. Biogeosciences 4, 87–104 (2007)

  68. 68.

    & Regulation of atmospheric CO2 by deep-sea sediments in an Earth system model. Global Biogeochem. Cycles 21, GB2008 (2007)

  69. 69.

    , & The time scale of the silicate weathering negative feedback on atmospheric CO2. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 29, 583–596 (2015)

  70. 70.

    , , & An impulse response function for the ‘long tail’ of excess atmospheric CO2 in an Earth system model. Global Biogeochem. Cycles 30, 2–17 (2016)

  71. 71.

    & Global warming and the end-Permian extinction event: proxy and modeling perspectives. Earth Sci. Rev. 149, 5–22 (2015)

  72. 72.

    IPCC. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013)

  73. 73.

    Glacial–Interglacial Perturbations in the Global Carbon Cycle. PhD thesis, Univ. East Anglia (2001)

  74. 74.

    et al. The role of ocean transport in the uptake of anthropogenic CO2. Biogeosciences 6, 375–390 (2009)

Download references

Acknowledgements

This study was funded by a UK Ocean Acidification Research Program NERC/DEFRA/DECC grant (NE/H017518/1) to P.N.P., G.L.F. and P.F.S. (also supporting M.G.). A.R. was supported by a Heising–Simons Foundation award, and by EU grant ERC 2013-CoG-617313. E.T. was in part supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Ocean Sciences (grant no. NSF OCE 1536611). H.P. was in part supported by ERC grant 2013-CoG-617462. This study used samples provided by the International Ocean Discovery Program. We thank A. Milton at the University of Southampton for maintaining the mass spectrometers used in this study, and M. Davies at The Open University for assistance with sample preparation. We thank L. Haxhiaj and D. Nürnberg at GEOMAR Kiel and H. Kuhnert at MARUM Bremen for their help with carbon and oxygen isotope analyses.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK

    • Marcus Gutjahr
    • , Eleni Anagnostou
    •  & Gavin L. Foster
  2. GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Wischhofstrasse 1–3, 24148 Kiel, Germany

    • Marcus Gutjahr
  3. School of Geographical Sciences, Bristol University, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • Andy Ridgwell
  4. Department of Earth Sciences, University of California at Riverside, Riverside, California 92521, USA

    • Andy Ridgwell
  5. School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, The Open University, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK

    • Philip F. Sexton
  6. School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF10 3AT, UK

    • Paul N. Pearson
  7. MARUM, Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, 28359 Bremen, Germany

    • Heiko Pälike
  8. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92037, USA

    • Richard D. Norris
  9. Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06520, USA

    • Ellen Thomas
  10. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut 06459, USA

    • Ellen Thomas

Authors

  1. Search for Marcus Gutjahr in:

  2. Search for Andy Ridgwell in:

  3. Search for Philip F. Sexton in:

  4. Search for Eleni Anagnostou in:

  5. Search for Paul N. Pearson in:

  6. Search for Heiko Pälike in:

  7. Search for Richard D. Norris in:

  8. Search for Ellen Thomas in:

  9. Search for Gavin L. Foster in:

Contributions

G.L.F., P.F.S. and P.N.P. developed the concept and designed the study. M.G. and E.A. carried out the preparation of chemical samples, as well as elemental and isotopic analyses. P.F.S. performed foraminifer taxonomy and prepared foraminifer samples for the analyses. R.D.N. and E.T. supplied washed coarse-fraction samples. P.F.S. developed the age model. A.R. devised and conducted the Earth system modelling and analysis. H.P. carried out the carbon and oxygen isotopic analyses. M.G., A.R., G.L.F. and P.F.S. led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the interpretation of results and writing of the final text.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Marcus Gutjahr.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks T. Bralower, K. Meissner and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains a detailed account about the Earth System Modelling approaches that were used and additional references.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This table contains foraminifera-based stable isotope results, relative sample ages, selected elemental ratios as well as the calculated mixed layer pH.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 2

    This table contains bulk carbonate stable carbon and oxygen isotope results, presented alongside relative ages following our two alternative age models (see Methods).

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature23646

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.