Constraining the trigger for an ancient warming episode



[1] The Paleocene epoch (∼66–56 million years ago) was sandwiched between sudden climate shifts and mass extinctions. The boundary between the end of the Paleocene and the beginning of the Eocene (the P-E boundary) saw the global average temperature soar by 5°C over a few thousand years, leading to a pronounced reorganization of both terrestrial and oceanic plant and animal communities. The P-E boundary warming was triggered by an influx of atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the influx's ultimate trigger is still being debated. Other prominent warming events within the Paleogene (∼66–23 million years ago), the broad time span that encompasses the Paleocene and Eocene, have been linked to regularly recurring changes in the eccentricity of the Earth's orbit that take place on 100,000- and 405,000-year cycles. Proponents of this view suggest that an alignment of the two cycles could lead to the warming of deep ocean waters, melting frozen methane and triggering an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, some studies have suggested that the P-E boundary warming was instead the product of geological processes, where carbon-rich rocks were baked by injected magma, which eventually liberated the carbon to the atmosphere. Deciding between proposed explanations for the cause of the P-E warming, whether they are astronomical or geological, depends on accurately pinning the event in time. (Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, doi:10.1029/2010GC003426, 2011)