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Sudden spreading of corrosive bottom water during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum


The Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, approximately 55 million years ago, was a period of rapid warming linked to a massive release of carbon to the ocean–atmosphere system1. This warming event was also marked by widespread dissolution of carbonates at the sea floor2. The acidification of deep waters was generally more extensive and severe in the Atlantic and Caribbean, with more modest changes in the Southern and Pacific oceans3,4,5. Here we use the UVic ESCM global climate model to show that corrosive deep water spreading from the North Atlantic can explain the spatial variations in carbonate dissolution during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. In our simulations, highly corrosive waters accumulate in the deep North Atlantic at the onset of the event. Several thousand years after an imposed atmospheric carbon release, warming of the deep ocean destabilizes the North Atlantic water column and triggers deep-water formation. This deep convection causes the corrosive bottom water to spill over an equatorial sill into the South Atlantic. The bottom water then spreads through the Southern and Pacific oceans, progressively gaining alkalinity. We conclude that the pattern of sediment dissolution simulated along the path taken by the corrosive water is consistent with most dissolution estimates from the sediment record.

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Figure 1: Zonal averages of calcite saturation state Ωcalcite across the Atlantic Basin at five time steps.
Figure 2: Simulated time series averaged horizontally over the rectangular regions shown in Fig. 3b.
Figure 3: Spread of corrosive bottom water from the North Atlantic and subsequent dissolution of seafloor carbonate.

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This work was supported by the NSERC CREATE training program in interdisciplinary climate science at the University of Victoria, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, the ARC Future Fellowship program (FT100100443 to K.J.M.), the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, the US National Science Foundation (EAR 06-28394 and OCE 14-16663 to T.J.B.), and an award under the Merit Allocation Scheme on the NCI National Facility at the Australian National University. We are grateful to T. D. Jones for assisting with the calculation of palaeolocations for each drilling site, to D. Thomas and J. Zachos for input on sedimentary data, and to Y. Cui and P. Valdes for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. Figure 3a was created with the assistance of A. Davies.

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K.J.M. and T.J.B. conceived and designed the model simulations, K.J.M. performed the simulations, and K.A. and K.J.M. analysed the results. T.J.B. provided the sedimentary data and analysis. K.A. and T.J.B. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Kaitlin Alexander.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Alexander, K., J. Meissner, K. & J. Bralower, T. Sudden spreading of corrosive bottom water during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Nature Geosci 8, 458–461 (2015).

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