Chaos and the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum

The transition from the Palaeocene to Eocene Epochs (56 Ma) was marked by an abrupt increase in global mean temperature of about 5 to 8°C within about 10 to 20 thousand years. That is comparable to a rate of warming similar to that currently induced by human activities. The evidence comes from the oxygen isotopes and magnesium/calcium ratios in the tests of both surface- and bottom dwelling foraminifera. The event is matched by a similarly profound excursion in the δ13C of carbon-rich strata of that age, whose extreme negative value marks the release of a huge mass of previously buried organic carbon to the atmosphere. The Epoch-boundary coincides with the beginning of rapid diversification among mammals and plants that had survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction some 10 Ma beforehand. The most likely cause was the release of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, from gas hydrate buried just beneath the surface of sea-floor sediments on continental shelves. An estimated mass of 1.5 trillion tonnes of released methane has been suggested. Methane rapidly oxidizes to CO2 in the atmosphere, which dissolves to make rainwater slightly acid so that the oceans also become more acid; a likely cause for the mass extinction of foraminifera species at the boundary.

Since the discovery of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) in the late-1990s a range of possible causes have been suggested. Releasing methane suddenly from sea-floor gas hydrates needs some kind of trigger, such as a steady increase in the temperature of ocean-bottom water to above the critical level for gas-hydrate stability. The late-Palaeocene witnessed slow global warming by between 3 to 5°C over 4 to 5 Ma. There are several hypotheses for this precursor warming, such as a direct CO2 release from the mantle by volcanic activity for which there are several candidates in the geological record of the Palaeocene. Such surface warming would have had to be transferred to the sea floor on continental shelves to destabilise gas hydrates, which implicates a change in oceanic current patterns. An extraterrestrial cause has also been considered (see Impact linked to the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary event, Earth-logs October 2016). Sediment cores from the North Atlantic off the eastern seaboard of the US have revealed impact debris including glass spherules and shocked mineral grains at the same level as the PETM, together with iridium in terrestrial sediments onshore of the same age: there are no such global signatures). But apart from two small craters in Texas and Jordan (12 and 5 km across, respectively) of roughly the same age, no impact event of the necessary magnitude for truly global influence is known. However, there may have been an altogether different triggering mechanism.

Since the confirmation of the Milanković-Croll hypothesis to explain the cyclical shifts in climate during the Pleistocene Epoch in terms of changes in Earth’s orbital characteristics induced by varying gravitational forces in the solar system, the findings have been used as an alternative means of dating other stratigraphic events that show cyclicity. In essence, the varying forces at work are inherently chaotic in a formally mathematical sense. Although Milanković cycles sometimes pop-up when ancient, repetitive stratigraphic sequences are analysed, consistently using the method as a tool to calibrate the geological record to an astronomical timescale breaks down for sediments older than about 50 Ma. Calculations disagree markedly beyond that time. Richard Zeebe and Lucas Lourens of the Universities of Hawaii and Utrecht tried an opposite approach, using the known geological records from deep-sea cores to calibrate the astronomical predictions and, in turn, used the solution to take the astronomical time scale further back than 50 Ma (Zeebe, R.E. & Lourens, L.J. 2019. Solar System chaos and the Paleocene–Eocene boundary age constrained by geology and astronomy. Science, v. 365, p. 926-929; DOI: 10.1126/science.aax0612). They reached back about 8 Ma, so putting the PETM in focus. As well as refining its age (56.01 ± 0.05 Ma) they showed that the PETM coincided with a 405 ka maximum in Earth’s orbital eccentricity lasting around 170 ka: a possible orbital trigger for the spike in temperature and δ13C together, with evidence for a period of chaos in the Solar System about 50 Ma ago. But, what did that chaos actually do, other than mess up orbital dating? To me it seems to suggest something narsty happening to the behaviour of the Giant Planets that are the Lords of the astronomical dance…

See also: Grabowski, M. 2019. Deep-sea sediments reveal solar system chaos: an advance in dating geologic archives. SOEST News

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