Letter | Published:

Two massive, rapid releases of carbon during the onset of the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 4447 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

The Earth’s climate abruptly warmed by 5–8 °C during the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), about 55.5 million years ago1,2. This warming was associated with a massive addition of carbon to the ocean–atmosphere system, but estimates of the Earth system response to this perturbation are complicated by widely varying estimates of the duration of carbon release, which range from less than a year to tens of thousands of years. In addition the source of the carbon, and whether it was released as a single injection or in several pulses, remains the subject of debate2,3,4. Here we present a new high-resolution carbon isotope record from terrestrial deposits in the Bighorn Basin (Wyoming, USA) spanning the PETM, and interpret the record using a carbon-cycle box model of the ocean–atmosphere–biosphere system. Our record shows that the beginning of the PETM is characterized by not one but two distinct carbon release events, separated by a recovery to background values. To reproduce this pattern, our model requires two discrete pulses of carbon released directly to the atmosphere, at average rates exceeding 0.9 Pg C yr−1, with the first pulse lasting fewer than 2,000 years. We thus conclude that the PETM involved one or more reservoirs capable of repeated, catastrophic carbon release, and that rates of carbon release during the PETM were more similar to those associated with modern anthropogenic emissions5 than previously suggested3,4.

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.

    , & Time scale controversy: Accurate orbital calibration of the early Paleogene. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 13, Q06015 (2012).

  2. 2.

    & 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).

  3. 3.

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

  4. 4.

    et al. Slow release of fossil carbon during the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum. Nature Geosci. 4, 481–485 (2011).

  5. 5.

    et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 465–570 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  6. 6.

    & Facies and facies architecture of Paleogene floodplain deposits, Willwood Formation, Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, USA. Sed. Geol. 114, 33–54 (1997).

  7. 7.

    et al. in Paleocene–Eocene Stratigraphy and Biotic Change in the Bighorn and Clarks Fork Basins, Wyoming (ed Gingerich, P. D.) 73–88 (Univ. of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, 2001).

  8. 8.

    The stable isotopic composition of modern soil carbonate and its relationship to climate. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 71, 229–240 (1984).

  9. 9.

    , & Constraints on hyperthermals. Nature Geosci. 5, 231 (2012).

  10. 10.

    & Recovering the true size of an Eocene hyperthermal from the marine sedimentary record. Paleoceanography 28, 700–712 (2013).

  11. 11.

    & Coupled and decoupled responses of continental and marine organic-sedimentary systems through the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum, New Jersey margin, USA. Paleoceanography 28, 105–115 (2013).

  12. 12.

    et al. Basin-wide magnetostratigraphic framework for the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 119, 848–859 (2007).

  13. 13.

    , & An extraterrestrial 3He-based timescale for the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) from Walvis Ridge, IODP Site 1266. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 74, 5098–5108 (2010).

  14. 14.

    , , & Continental warming preceding the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum. Nature 467, 955–958 (2010).

  15. 15.

    et al. Environmental precursors to rapid light carbon injection at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary. Nature 2007, 1218–1222 (2007).

  16. 16.

    , , & Calcareous nannofossil assemblage changes across the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum: Evidence from a shelf setting. Mar. Micropaleontol. 92, 61–80 (2012).

  17. 17.

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

  18. 18.

    , & Mechanisms of climate warming at the end of the Paleocene. Science 285, 724–727 (1999).

  19. 19.

    in Climate Change-Geophyscial Foundations and Ecological Effects Vol. 1 (eds Blanco, J. & Kheradmand, H.) 43–64 (InTech, 2011).

  20. 20.

    Up in smoke: A role for organic carbon feedbacks in Paleogene hyperthermals. Glob. Planet. Change 109, 18–29 (2013).

  21. 21.

    & Bolide summer: The Paleocene/Eocene thermal maximum as a response to an extraterrestrial trigger. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 224, 144–166 (2005).

  22. 22.

    & Beyond methane: Towards a theory for the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 245, 523–537 (2006).

  23. 23.

    et al. Past extreme warming events linked to massive carbon release from thawing permafrost. Nature 484, 87–92 (2012).

  24. 24.

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

  25. 25.

    , , & The source and fate of massive carbon input during the latest Paleocene thermal maximum. Science 286, 1531–1533 (1999).

  26. 26.

    What caused the long duration of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum? Paleoceanography 28, 440–452 (2013).

  27. 27.

    Methane hydrate stability and anthropogenic climate change. Biogeosciences 4, 521–544 (2007).

  28. 28.

    , , , & Warming the fuel for the fire: Evidence for the thermal dissociation of methane hydrate during the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum. Geology 30, 1067–1070 (2002).

  29. 29.

    in Paleocene–Eocene Stratigraphy and Biotic Change in the Bighorn and Clarks Fork Basins, Wyoming Vol. 33 (ed Gingerich, P. D.) 37–71 (Univ. of Michigan Papers on Paleontology, 2001).

  30. 30.

    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).

Download references

Acknowledgements

This research used samples and/or data provided by the Bighorn Basin Coring Project (BBCP), and we thank the BBCP Science Team for participation in core collection, processing and sampling. We are grateful to H. Kuhlmann, H-J. Wallrabe-Adams, L. Schnieders, V. Lukies, A. Wülbers and W. Hale for their assistance throughout the project. We are indebted to R. Wilkens for providing knowledge and access to image analysis procedures. We thank V. Srinivasaraghavan, J. VanDeVelde, B. Theiling and S. Chakraborty for assistance with laboratory analyses. Funding for this research was provided by United States National Science Foundation grants 0958821, 0958622, 0958583 and 1261312, and by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA

    • Gabriel J. Bowen
    • , Bianca J. Maibauer
    •  & Amy Steimke
  2. Global Change and Sustainability Center, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA

    • Gabriel J. Bowen
    •  & Bianca J. Maibauer
  3. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • Mary J. Kraus
  4. MARUM-Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, Leobener Strasse, 28359 Bremen, Germany

    • Ursula Röhl
    •  & Thomas Westerhold
  5. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA

    • Philip D. Gingerich
  6. Department of Paleobiology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 20560, USA

    • Scott L. Wing
  7. Department of Earth Sciences, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA

    • William C. Clyde

Authors

  1. Search for Gabriel J. Bowen in:

  2. Search for Bianca J. Maibauer in:

  3. Search for Mary J. Kraus in:

  4. Search for Ursula Röhl in:

  5. Search for Thomas Westerhold in:

  6. Search for Amy Steimke in:

  7. Search for Philip D. Gingerich in:

  8. Search for Scott L. Wing in:

  9. Search for William C. Clyde in:

Contributions

G.J.B., B.J.M., P.D.G., W.C.C. and S.L.W. designed the study. B.J.M. carried out isotopic and petrographic analyses. U.R., T.W. and P.D.G. developed the composite depth scale, assembled the core images, and established the correlation to the outcrop level. M.J.K. developed the age model. A.S. collected data on carbonate nodule occurrence and morphology. G.J.B. developed and ran the carbon-cycle model simulations. G.J.B. and B.J.M. wrote the manuscript. All authors reviewed the manuscript and contributed to the Supplementary Information.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gabriel J. Bowen.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2316

Further reading

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