Evolution of Early Cenozoic marine temperatures


  • James C. Zachos,

  • Lowell D. Stott,

  • Kyger C. Lohmann


The equator to high southern latitude sea surface and vertical temperature gradients are reconstructed from oxygen isotope values of planktonic and benthic foraminifers for the following five time intervals: late Paleocene, early Eocene, early middle Eocene, late Eocene, and early Oligocene. Paleotemperatures are calculated using standard oxygen isotope/temperature equations with adjustments to account for (1) variations in sea water δ18O related to changes in global ice volume over time and (2) latitudinal gradients in surface water δ18O. These reconstructions indicate that sea-surface temperatures (SST) of the Southern Oceans in the early Eocene were as high as 15°C, whereas temperatures during the late Paleocene and early middle Eocene reached maximum levels of 10°–12°C. By the late Eocene and early Oligocene high latitude SST had declined to 6 and 4°C, respectively. For most of the early Paleogene, low latitude sub-tropical temperatures remained constant and well within the range of Holocene temperatures (24°ndash;25°C) but by the late Eocene and early Oligocene declined to values in the range of 18° to 22°C. The late Paleogene apparent decline in tropical temperatures, however, might be artificial because of dissolution of near-surface foraminifera tests which biased sediment assemblages toward deeper-dwelling foraminifera. Moreover, according to recent plate reconstructions, it appears that the majority of sites upon which the late Eocene and early Oligocene tropical temperatures were previously established were located either in or near regions likely to have been influenced by upwelling. Global deepwater temperature on average paralleled southern ocean SST for most of the Paleogene. We speculate based on the overall timing and character of marine sea surface temperature variation during the Paleogene that some combination of both higher levels of greenhouse gases and increased heat transport was responsible for the exceptional high-latitude warmth of the early Eocene.