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Slow release of fossil carbon during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum

Abstract

The transient global warming event known as the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred about 55.9 Myr ago. The warming was accompanied by a rapid shift in the isotopic signature of sedimentary carbonates, suggesting that the event was triggered by a massive release of carbon to the ocean–atmosphere system. However, the source, rate of emission and total amount of carbon involved remain poorly constrained. Here we use an expanded marine sedimentary section from Spitsbergen to reconstruct the carbon isotope excursion as recorded in marine organic matter. We find that the total magnitude of the carbon isotope excursion in the ocean–atmosphere system was about 4‰. We then force an Earth system model of intermediate complexity to conform to our isotope record, allowing us to generate a continuous estimate of the rate of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Our simulations show that the peak rate of carbon addition was probably in the range of 0.3–1.7 Pg C yr−1, much slower than the present rate of carbon emissions.

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Figure 1: Study area.
Figure 2: Geochemical profiles throughout the PETM from core BH9-05 in Spitsbergen.
Figure 3: Filtered records of core BH9-05 in the depth domain modified from ref. 2.
Figure 4: Model results of the PETM carbon release rate and cumulative amount of carbon added versus time from the onset of the CIE (535 mbs) (age model is from ref. 2).

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Zachos, T. Bralower, T. White, M. Arthur, D. Bice, G. Dickens, R. Zeebe, A. Sluijs and G. Bowen for discussions, and D. Walizer for assistance in the laboratory. High resolution core sampling by J. Nagy, H. Dypvik, L. Riber, D. Jargvoll and M. Jochmann is appreciated. This research was supported by The Worldwide Universities Network, Pennsylvania State University, US National Science Foundation awards EAR-0628486 and EAR-06520020 to L.R.K. and EAR-0844 212 to K.H.F.

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L.R.K., Y.C. and A.J.R. designed the research. Y.C. carried out all the model simulations. Y.C., C.K.J. and A.F.D. conducted geochemical analyses. Y.C. and L.R.K. wrote the paper with contributions from A.J.C., C.K.J. and A.F.D. All authors contributed to interpretation of data.

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Correspondence to Ying Cui.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Cui, Y., Kump, L., Ridgwell, A. et al. Slow release of fossil carbon during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Nature Geosci 4, 481–485 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1179

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