Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. Zachos, J. C., Dickens, G. R. & Zeebe, R. E. An early Cenozoic perspective on greenhouse warming and carbon-cycle dynamics. Nature 451, 279–283 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Lourens, L. J. et al. Astronomical pacing of late Palaeocene to early Eocene global warming events. Nature 435, 1083–1087 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Westerhold, T. et al. On the duration of magnetochrons C24r and C25n and the timing of early Eocene global warming events: Implications from the Ocean Drilling Program Leg 208 Walvis Ridge depth transect. Paleoceanography 22, PA2201 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Galeotti, S. et al. Orbital chronology of Early Eocene hyperthermals from the Contessa Road section, central Italy. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 290, 192–200 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Dickens, G. R., O’Neill, J. R., Rea, D. K. & Owen, R. M. Dissociation of oceanic methane hydrate as a cause of the carbon isotope excursion at the end of the Paleocene. Paleoceanography 10, 965–971 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Zachos, J. C. et al. Rapid acidification of the ocean during the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum. Science 308, 1611–1615 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Agnini, C. et al. An early Eocene carbon cycle perturbation at 52.5 Ma in the southern Alps: Chronology and biotic response. Paleoceanography 24, PA2209 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Zachos, J. C., McCarren, H., Murphy, B., Rohl, U. & Westerhold, T. Tempo and scale of late Paleocene and early Eocene carbon isotope cycles: Implications for the origin of hyperthermals. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 299, 242–249 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Kurtz, A., Kump, L., Arthur, M., Zachos, J. & Paytan, A. Early Cenozoic decoupling of the global carbon and sulfur cycles. Paleoceanography 18, 1090 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Zachos, J. C., Lohmann, K. C. & Walker, J. C. G. Abrupt climate change and transient climates during the Paleogene—a marine perspective. J. Geol. 101, 191–213 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Dickens, G. R., Castillo, M. M. & Walker, J. C. G. A blast of gas in the latest Paleocene: Simulating first-order effects of massive dissociation of oceanic methane hydrate. Geology 25, 259–262 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Sluijs, A., Brinkhuis, H. & Schouten, S. Environmental precursors to rapid light carbon injection at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary. Nature 450, 1218–1221 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Abdul-Aziz, H. et al. Astronomical climate control on paleosol stacking patterns in the upper Paleocene-lower Eocene Willwood formation, Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. Geology 36, 531–534 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Sluijs, A. et al. Paleocene-early Eocene paleoenvironments with special emphasis on the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum (Lomonosov Ridge, Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 302). Paleoceanography 23, PA1S11 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Rohl, U., Norris, R. D. & Ogg, J. G. Causes and Consequences of Globally Warm Climates in the Early Paleogene Vol. 369 (Geological Society of America Special Paper, 2003).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Lunt, D. J. et al. CO2-driven ocean circulation changes as an amplifier of Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum hydrate destabilization. Geology 38, 875–878 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Winguth, A., Shellito, C., Shields, C. & Winguth, C. Climate response at the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum to greenhouse gas forcing—a model study with CCSM3. J. Clim. 23, 2562–2584 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Zeebe, R. E. & Zachos, J. C. Reversed deep-sea carbonate ion basin gradient during Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum. Paleoceanography 22, PA3201 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Panchuk, K., Ridgwell, A. & Kump, L. R. Sedimentary response to Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum carbon release: A model-data comparison. Geology 36, 315–318 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Dickens, G. R. Rethinking the global carbon cycle with a large, dynamic and microbially mediated gas hydrate capacitor. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 213, 169–183 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Paillard, D. The timing of Pleistocene glaciations from a simple multiple-state climate model. Nature 391, 378–381 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Cramer, B. S., Wright, J. D., Kent, D. V. & Aubry, M-P. Orbital climate forcing of δ13C excursions in the late Paleocene–early Eocene (chrons C24n–C25n). Paleoceanography 18, 1097 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Nicolo, M. J., Dickens, G. R., Hollis, C. J. & Zachos, J. C. Multiple early Eocene hyperthermals: Their sedimentary expression on the New Zealand continental margin and in the deep sea. Geology 35, 699–702 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Charles, A. J. et al. Constraints on the numerical age of the Paleocene–Eocene boundary. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 12, Q0AA17 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Sexton, P. F. et al. Eocene global warming events driven by ventilation of oceanic dissolved organic carbon. Nature 471, 349–352 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Raymo, M. E. The timing of major climate terminations. Paleoceanography 12, 577–585 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Cox, P. M., Betts, R. A., Jones, C. D., Spall, S. A. & Totterdell, I. J. in Meteorology at the Millennium (ed. Pearce, R.) 259–279 (Academic, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  29. Dunkley-Jones, T. et al. A Paleogene persepctive on climate sensitivity and methane hydrate instability. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 368, 2395–2415 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Sluijs, A. et al. Subtropical Arctic Ocean temperatures during the Palaeocene/Eocene thermal maximum. Nature 441, 610–613 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel J. Lunt.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 3378 kb)

Supplementary Information

Information about the zip file (PDF 101 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (ZIP 127 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing