What happens to the Earth's climate, environment, and biota when thousands of gigatons of greenhouse gases are rapidly added to the atmosphere? Modern anthropogenic forcing of atmospheric chemistry promises to provide an experiment in such change that has not been matched since the early Paleogene, more than 50 million years ago (Ma),when catastrophic release of carbon to the atmosphere drove abrupt, transient, hyperthermal events.
Research on the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum(PETM)—the best documented of these events, which occurred about 55 Ma—has advanced significantly since its discovery 15 years ago. During the PETM, carbon addition to the oceans and atmosphere was of a magnitude similar to that which is anticipated through the 21st century. This event initiated global warming, biotic extinction and migration, and fundamental changes in the carbon and hydrological cycles that transformed the early Paleogene world.