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Terrestrial carbon isotope excursions and biotic change during Palaeogene hyperthermals


Pronounced transient global warming events between 60 and 50 million years ago have been linked to rapid injection of isotopically-light carbon to the ocean–atmosphere system1,2. It is, however, unclear whether the largest of the hyperthermals, the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM; ref. 3), had a similar origin4,5 as the subsequent greenhouse climate events1,6, such as the Eocene Thermal Maximum 2 and H2 events. The timing and evolution of these events is well documented in marine records7,8, but is not well constrained on land. Here we report carbon isotope records from palaeosol carbonate nodules from the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, USA that record the hyperthermals. Our age model is derived from cyclostratigraphy, and shows a similar structure of events in the terrestrial and marine records. Moreover, the magnitude of the terrestrial isotope excursions is consistently scaled with the marine records, suggesting that the severity of local palaeoenvironmetal change during each event was proportional to the size of the global carbon isotope excursion. We interpret this consistency as an indication of similar mechanisms of carbon release during all three hyperthermals. However, unlike during the PETM (refs 9, 10), terrestrial environmental change during the subsequent hyperthermals is not linked to substantial turnover of mammalian fauna in the Bighorn Basin.

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Figure 1: Terrestrial carbon isotope records of the ETM2 and H2 hyperthermal events.
Figure 2: Carbon isotope records in the continental and marine realms on independent astronomical timescales.
Figure 3: Comparison of carbon isotope excursions for PETM, ETM2 and H2 for Bighorn Basin continental and different marine records.


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This research was funded by a Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Earth and Life Sciences (ALW) grant to H.A.A., National Science Foundation grants EAR-0707415 and EAR-0958821 to W.C.C., and EAR-0628302 and OCE-0902882 to G.J.B. We thank the Churchill family in Wyoming for logistical support, P. van den Berg, M. Clementz, J. Fahlke, D. and M. Gingerich, Sander, Sigrid and Sybren Hilgen, M. Hoerner, P. Lind, H. Miller, A. Sluijs and D. Wolf for helping with field work, and T. Barnum, A. Dangremond, A. van Dijk and W. Krijgsman for laboratory assistance.

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H.A.A., W.C.C., P.D.G., F.J.H. and H.C.F. carried out fieldwork. H.A.A., W.C.C. and H.C.F. performed the laboratory analysis. H.A.A., W.C.C., P.D.G., H.C.F. and L.J.L. performed data integration. All authors contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Hemmo A. Abels.

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Abels, H., Clyde, W., Gingerich, P. et al. Terrestrial carbon isotope excursions and biotic change during Palaeogene hyperthermals. Nature Geosci 5, 326–329 (2012).

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