Warming event that took place 56 million years ago led to significant ecological disruption and could shed light on modern climate change.
A natural global warming event that took place 56 million years ago was triggered almost entirely by volcanic eruptions that occurred as Greenland separated from Europe during the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean, according to an international team of researchers that includes Andy Ridgwell, a University of California, Riverside professor of earth sciences.
The findings, published today in Nature, refute the more commonly favored explanation that the event, called the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), was caused by the release of carbon from sedimentary reservoirs such as frozen methane.
“While it has long been suggested that the PETM was caused by injection of carbon into the atmosphere and ocean, the mechanism has remained elusive until now,” Ridgwell said. “By combining geochemical measurements and a global climate model that my group has been developing for over a decade, we have shown that this event was caused almost entirely by carbon emissions from the Earth’s interior.”
Scientists are interested in studying ancient warming events to understand how the Earth behaves when the climate system is dramatically perturbed. During the PETM, atmospheric carbon dioxide more than doubled and global temperatures rose by 5 degrees Celsius, an increase that is comparable with the change that may occur by later next century on modern Earth. While there was significant ecological disruption during the PETM, most species were able to avoid extinction via adaptation or migration. However, the rate of carbon addition during the onset of the PETM lasted for several thousand years, as described in a related Nature Communications paper by Sandra Kirtland Turner, an assistant professor of earth sciences at UCR, whereas current climate change is occurring on a century time-scale.
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Image via Michael Storey, Natural History Museum of Denmark