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A model for orbital pacing of methane hydrate destabilization during the Palaeogene


A series of transient global warming events1,2 occurred during the late Palaeocene and early Eocene, about 59 to 50 million years ago. The events, although variable in magnitude, were apparently paced by orbital cycles2,3,4 and linked to massive perturbations of the global carbon cycle5,6. However, a causal link between orbital changes in insolation and the carbon cycle has yet to be established for this time period. Here we present a series of coupled climate model simulations that demonstrate that orbitally induced changes in ocean circulation and intermediate water temperature can trigger the destabilization of methane hydrates. We then use a simple threshold model to show that progressive global warming over millions of years, in combination with the increasing tendency of the ocean to remain in a more stagnant state, can explain the decreasing magnitude and increasing frequency of hyperthermal events throughout the early Eocene. Our work shows that nonlinear interactions between climate and the carbon cycle can modulate the effect of orbital variations, in this case producing transient global warming events with varying timing and magnitude.

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Figure 1: Climatic context to the Palaeogene hyperthermal events.
Figure 2: Orbital and greenhouse modulation of the Palaeogene ocean circulation switch.
Figure 3: Maximum decrease in depth of the HSZ, given a transient orbitally driven temperature forcing.
Figure 4: Pacing of methane hydrate destabilization during the Palaeogene from our threshold model.


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D.J.L. and A.R. acknowledge support from the UK Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/F001622/1. A.R. acknowledges support from The Royal Society in the form of a University Research Fellowship as well as NE/F002408/1 and NE/I006443/1. A.S. acknowledges support from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-Veni grant 863.07.001) and the research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC Grant agreement 259627, awarded to A.S. This work was supported by NSF Grant OCE-0903014 to J.Z. S.H. acknowledges support from the UK Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/F021941/1.

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D.J.L. and A.R. conceived the GCM model experiments and the threshold model; S.H. carried out the calculation of HSZ and the transient hydrate modelling. All authors interpreted and discussed the results and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Daniel J. Lunt.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Lunt, D., Ridgwell, A., Sluijs, A. et al. A model for orbital pacing of methane hydrate destabilization during the Palaeogene. Nature Geosci 4, 775–778 (2011).

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