Arctic warmer than now half a million years ago

Just over a month since evidence emerged that the Arctic Ocean was probably filled with fresh water from 150 to 131 and 70 to 62 thousand years ago (When the Arctic Ocean was filled with fresh water, February 2021), another study has shaken ‘received wisdom’ about Arctic conditions. This time it is about the climate in polar regions, and comes not from an ice core but speleothem or calcium carbonate flowstone that was precipitated on a cave wall in north-eastern Greenland. The existence of caves at about 80°N between 350 to 670 m above sea level in a very cold, arid area is a surprise in itself, for they require flowing water to form. The speleothem is up to 12 cm thick, but none is growing under modern, relatively warm conditions, cave air being below freezing all year. For speleothem to form to such an extent suggests a long period when air temperature was above 0°C. So was it precipitated before glacial conditions were established in pre-Pleistocene times?

Limestone caves in the arid Grottedal region of north-eastern Greenland (Credit: Moseley et al. 2021; Fig 2D)

A standard means of discovering the age of cave deposits, such as speleothem or stalagmites, is uranium-series dating (see: Irish stalagmite reveals high-frequency climate changes, December 2001). In this case the sheet of flowstone turned out to have been deposited between 588 to 537 thousand years ago; a 50 ka ‘window’ into conditions that prevailed during the middle part of 100 ka climatic cycling – about 6 glacial-interglacial stages before present. (Moseley, G.E. et al. 2021. Speleothem record of mild and wet mid-Pleistocene climate in northeast Greenland. Science Advances, v. 7, online article  eabe1260; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe1260). Roughly half the layer formed during an interglacial, the rest under glacial conditions that followed. Detailed oxygen-isotope studies revealed that air temperatures during which calcium carbonate was precipitated were at least 3.5°C above those prevailing in the area at present; warm enough to melt local permafrost and to increase the summer extent of ice-free conditions in the Arctic Ocean, thereby encouraging greater rainfall. These warm and wet conditions correlate with increased solar heating over the North Atlantic region at that time, as suggested by modelling based on Milankovich astronomical forcing.

Unfortunately, the climate record derived from cores through the Greenland ice sheet only reaches back to about 120 ka, during the last interglacial period. So it is not possible to match the speleothem results to an alternative data set. Yet, thanks to the rediscovery of dirt cored from the very base of the deepest part of the ice sheet (beneath Camp Century) in a freezer in Denmark – it was discarded as interest focused on the record preserved in the ice itself – there is now evidence for complete melting of the ice sheet at some time in the past. The dirt contains abundant fossil plants. Analysing radioactive isotopes of aluminium and beryllium that formed in associated quartz grains as a result of cosmic ray bombardment when the area was ice-free suggests two periods of complete melting followed by glaciation , the second  being within the last million years.

The onshore Arctic climate is clearly more unstable than previously believed.

See also:  Geologists Find Million-Year-Old Plant Fossils Deep Beneath Greenland Ice Sheet. Sci News, 16 March 2021.

Magnetic reversal and demise of the Neanderthals?

A rumour emerged last week that the Neanderthals met their end as one consequence of an extraterrestrial, possibly even extragalactic influence. Curiously, it stems from a recent discovery in New Zealand, where of course Neanderthals never set foot and nor did anatomically modern humans, the ancestors of Maori people, until a mere 800 years ago. It started with an ancient log from a kauri tree (Agathis australis), a species that Maoris revere. Found in excavations of boggy ground, the log weighed about 60 tons, so it was a valuable commodity, especially as it is illegal to fell living kauri trees. The wood is unaffected by burial and insect attack, has a regular grain and colour throughout, so is ideal for monumental Maori sculpture. Such swamp kauri also preserves their own life history in annual growth rings, and the log in question has 1700 of them. Using growth rings to chart climate variation gives the most detailed records of the recent past, provided the wood can be dated. Matching growth ring records from several trees of different ages is key to charting local climate with annual precision over several millennia.

An ancient kauri tree log recovered by swampland excavations in New Zealand. (Credit: Jonathan Palmer, in Voosen 2021)

Radiocarbon dating indicates that this particular kauri tree was growing around 42 thousand years ago. That is close to the upper limit for using 14C concentration in organic matter to determine age because the isotope has a short half-life (5730 years). In this case samples of the log would contain only about 0.7 % of its original complement of radioactive carbon. Cosmic rays generate 14C when they hit nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere and it enters COand thus the carbon cycle. Carbon dioxide taken up by photosynthesis to contribute carbon to plants contains only about one part per trillion of 14C. Consequently wood as ancient as that in the kauri log contains almost vanishingly small amounts, yet it can still be measured using mass spectrometry to yield an accurate radiometric age.

The particularly interesting thing about the 42 ka date is that it coincides with the timing of the last reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, known as the Laschamps event. The kauri tree bears detailed witness through its growth rings to the environmental effects of a decrease in that field to almost zero as the poles flipped. The bulk of cosmic rays are normally deflected away from the Earth by the geomagnetic field, but during a reversal a great many more pass through the atmosphere, the most energetic reaching the surface and the biosphere. The kauri growth rings record fluctuations in the generation of 14C by their passage and thereby the geomagnetic field strength, which was only 6% of normal levels from 42.3 to 41.6 ka (Cooper, A. and 32 others  2021. A global environmental crisis 42,000 years ago. Science, v. 371, p. 811-818; DOI: 10.1126/science.abb8677). This coincided with an unrelated succession of periods of low solar activity and a reduced solar ‘wind’, which also provides some cosmic-rayprotection when activity is at normal levels; a ‘double whammy’. One consequence would have been destruction of stratospheric ozone by cosmic rays and thus increased ultraviolet exposure at ground level.

Combined with the highly precise growth-ring dating, the climatic changes over the 1700 year lifetime of the kauri tree can be linked to other records of environmental change. These include glacial ice- and lake-bed cores together with stalactite layers. Apparently, the Laschamps geomagnetic reversal coincided with abrupt shifts in wind belts and precipitation, perhaps triggering major droughts in the southern continents. Highly plausible, but some of the other speculations are less certain. For instance, some time around 42 ka, but far from well-established, Australia’s marsupial megafauna experienced major extinctions, the Neanderthals disappear from the fossil record and modern humans started decorating caves in Europe (20 ka after they did in Indonesia). In fact, speculation becomes somewhat silly, with suggestions that early Europeans went to live in caves because of increased exposure to UV (they knew, did they, while Neanderthals didn’t?), their painting and, by implication, their entire culture shifting through the shock and awe of mighty displays of the aurora borealis. Just because the number 42 is (or was), according to the late Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘the answer to life, the universe and everything’, the authors tag the episode as the ‘Adams Event’. In their summary for The Conversation they include an animation with a quintessential Stephen Fry narrative, which Earth-logs readers can judge for themselves. Perhaps ‘Lockdown Trauma’ has a lot more to answer for, other than upsurges in Zoom conferences, knitting and gourmet experimentation …

See also: Voosen, P. 2021. Kauri trees mark magnetic flip 42,000 years ago. Science, v. 371, p. 766; DOI: 10.1126/science.371.6531.766

When the Arctic Ocean was filled with fresh water

The salinity of surface water at high latitudes in the North Atlantic is a critical factor in its sinking to draw warm, low-latitude water northwards in the Gulf Stream while contributing to the southwards flow of North Atlantic Deep Water along the ocean floor. One widely supported hypothesis for rapid cooling events, such as the Younger Dryas, is the shutdown of this thermohaline circulation (Review of thermohaline circulation, February 2002). That may happen when surface seawater at high latitudes is freshened and made less dense by rapid melting or break-up of continental ice sheets, or through the release of vast amounts of fresh water from glacially dammed lakes. The climatic decline leading to the last glacial maximum at around 20 ka was punctuated by irregular episodes known as Dansgaard-Oeschger and Heinrich Events that have been attributed to such hiccups in thermohaline processes. In this context, a whole new barrel of fish has been opened up by a geochemical study of the top few metres of sediments on the Arctic Ocean floor (Geibert, W. et al. 2021. Glacial episodes of a freshwater Arctic Ocean covered by a thick ice shelfNature, v. 590, p. 97–102; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03186-y), particularly their content of an isotope of thorium (230Th).

Being radioactive (half-life ~75 ka), 230Th is useful in working out sediment deposition rates, especially as it is insoluble and adheres to dust grains. The isotope is a decay product of uranium, yet it not only forms on land from uranium in hard rocks, eventually to be transported into marine sediments, but from uranium dissolved in seawater too. Interestingly, the amount of uranium that can enter seawater in solution depends on water salinity. Fresh water, especially that locked up in glacial ice, has very low concentrations of uranium. Consequently, ordinary seawater adds additional 230Th to sediments whereas fresh water does not. An excess of the isotope in marine sediments signifies their deposition from salty water, but those deposited in fresh water carry no excess. In the course of analysing deep-sea cores from the floors of the Arctic Ocean and the northernmost part of the North Atlantic, Walter Geibert and colleagues at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, and the University of Bremen, Germany revealed a series of sediment layers that were devoid of excess 230Th. This suggests that twice, probably in periods between 150 to 131 and 70 to 62 ka, water in the Arctic Ocean and the connected Nordic Sea was entirely fresh. In two cores the evidence suggests a third, restricted occurrence of fresh water fill at about 15 ka.

The most likely explanation is that the fresh-water episodes marked the development of major ice shelves, similar to those still present around Antarctic; i.e. floating or grounded ice of glacial origin (not sea ice). That had been anticipated, but not previously proved for the northern polar region. The outlets from the Arctic Ocean basin to the Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans are marked by barriers of shallow seabed. One is the Bering Straits, which became the Beringia land bridge that facilitated animal and human migrations from Siberia to North America when sea level fell as continental ice sheets grew. The other is the Greenland-Scotland Ridge formed by volcanism connected to the Icelandic hot spot as the North Atlantic opened. It is possible that the suggested ice shelves grounded on these ridges, to effectively dam and isolate the Arctic Ocean. Fresh water from melting land ice would ‘pond’ beneath the ice shelves, floating on denser salt water and eventually expelling it from much of the polar marine basin. A side effect of this would have been partially to accumulate and isolate the oxygen-isotope proportions that characterise snow and glacial ice. Remember that the light 16O isotope is preferentially extracted from sea water during evaporation, to become stored in glacial ice sheets so that the proportion of the heavier 18O increases in ocean water; δ18O is therefore an important proxy for glacial waxing and waning and thus the fluctuations of global sea level. Trapping a proportion of water of glacial origin in isolated Arctic Ocean water and ice shelves would explain discrepancies in the oxygen-isotope records of successive ice ages. Also, if the ice shelves periodically broke up, fresh water derived from them and ponded in the deepest Arctic Ocean basin could change the salinity of surface ocean water elsewhere – being lower density that fresh water would ‘float’.

The work of Geibert and colleagues may well result in a great deal of head scratching among palaeoclimatologists and perhaps new ideas on the dynamics of ice age climates.

See also: Hoffmann, S. 2021. The Arctic Ocean might have been filled with freshwater during ice ages. Nature, v. 590, p. 37-38; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-00208-7

Global warming: an important revision

Part of the turmoil surrounding the issue of anthropogenic global warming hinges on whether or not observed changes in annual mean global temperature since the Industrial Revolution may be due to natural climatic cycles similar to those that operated previously during the Holocene Epoch. Actual measurements of temperatures of the air, sea surface and so on date only as far back at the early 18th century when thermometers were invented. Getting an idea of natural climate change through the 11.65 thousand years since the end of the last period of extensive glaciation depends on a variety of indirect measurements or proxies for temperature. For sea-surface temperature (SST) the proxy of choice is based on the way that surface-dwelling organisms, specifically planktic foraminifera, extract magnesium and calcium from sea water to construct their tests (shells). The warmer the sea surface the more magnesium is incorporated as a trace element into the calcium carbonate that forms their tests. The Mg/Ca ratio in planktic foram tests recovered from sea-floor sediment layers changes in a reliably precise fashion with warming and cooling. Following the Younger Dryas frigid millennium this proxy suggests that the average sea-surface temperature at mid-latitudes in the North Atlantic rose to a maximum of 0.5°C above the present value between 10 to 6 thousand years ago. After this Holocene Climate Optimum the sea surface seems to have cooled until very recently. Much the same pattern has been recorded in sediment cores from many parts of the world. Another approach is based on the varying amount of solar heating modelled by the Milankovich theory of astronomical climatic forcing and a variety of other forcing factors, such as albedo changes and the greenhouse effect. The two sets of data, one measured the other based on well-accepted simulations, do not agree; the modelling suggests a steady rise in SST throughout the Holocene and no climatic optimum. This conundrum either casts doubt on computer modelling of climate forcing, otherwise reliable on the broader time scale, or on some unsuspected aspect of the Mg/Ca palaeothermometer. The second could involve some kind of bias.

Plots of global mean sea-surface temperature estimates during the Holocene: blue – based on the Mg/Ca ratios in the tests of planktic foraminifera; red – the Mg/Ca data corrected for seasonal bias (the pale blue and pink areas encompass the full range of mid-latitude marine records); grey – modelling based on all potential forcing factors, including anthropogenic greenhouse emissions. (credit: Jennifer Hertzberg, 2021; Fig 1)

Samatha Bova of Rutgers University, USA, and colleagues from the US and China have examined the possibility of seasonal bias in estimates of SSTs from West Pacific ocean floor sediment cores off New Guinea  (Bova, S. et al. 2021. Seasonal origin of the thermal maxima at the Holocene and the last interglacialNature, v. 589, p. 548–553; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-03155-x). First they examined the Mg/Ca proxy record from the last, Eemian interglacial episode (128-115 ka), on the grounds that astronomical modelling indicated much stronger seasonal contrasts in solar warming during that period, whereas other forcing factors were comparatively weak. By calculating the varying sensitivity of the older Mg/Ca record to seasonal factors they were able to devise a method of correcting such records for seasonal bias and apply it to the Holocene data from northeast New Guinea. The corrected Holocene SST record lacks the previously suspected climate optimum and its peak at ~8000 years ago. Instead, it reveals a continuous warming trend throughout the Holocene. The early part is far cooler than previously indicated by uncorrected SST thermometry. That may have resulted from the increased reflection of solar radiation – albedo forcing – from a larger area of remnant ice sheets on high-latitude parts of continents than was present during the warmer early-Eemian interglacial. Final melting of the great ice sheets of the Northern Hemisphere took until about 6500 years ago, when albedo effects would be roughly the same as at present. Thereafter, rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases warmed the planet towards modern levels.

Bova et al’s findings fundamentally change the context for modelling future climate change, and also for the interpretation of all previous interglacials, palaeotemperature records from which remain uncorrected. It seems likely that none of them had an early warm episode. As regards the future; climate modelling will have to change its parameters. For climate-change sceptics; two of their favourite arguments have been questioned. There are no longer signs of major, natural  ups and downs in the early Holocene that might suggest that current warming is simply repeating such fluctuations. The other aspect of the Holocene climate conundrum, that greenhouse gases increased naturally since 6000 years ago while global mean SSTs declined, has been removed from the sceptics’ arguments

See also: Hertzberg, J. 2021. Palaeoclimate puzzle explained by seasonal variation. Nature, v. 589, p. 521-522; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-00115-x. Kiefer, P. 2021. Earth used to be cooler than we thought, which changes our math on global warming, Popular Science, 28 January 2021

How flowering plants may have regulated atmospheric oxygen

Ultimately, the source of free oxygen in the Earth System is photosynthesis, but that is the result of a chemical balance in the biosphere and hydrosphere that operates at the surface and just beneath it in sediments. Burial of dead organic carbon in sedimentary rocks allows free oxygen to accumulate whereas weathering and oxidation of that carbon, largely to CO2, tends to counteract oxygen build-up. The balance is reflected in the current proportion of 21% oxygen in the atmosphere. Yet in the past oxygen levels have been much higher. During the Carboniferous and Permian periods it rose dramatically to an all-time high of 35% in the late Permian (about 250 Ma ago). This is famously reflected in fossils of giant dragonflies and other insects from the later part of the Palaeozoic Era.  Insects breathe passively by tiny tubes (trachea) through whose walls oxygen diffuses, unlike active-breathing quadrupeds that drive air into lung alveoli to dissolve O2 directly in blood. Insect size is thus limited by the oxygen content of air; to grow wing spans of up to 2 metres a modern dragon fly’s body would consist only of trachea with no room for gut; it would starve.

Woman holding a reconstructed Late Carboniferous dragonfly (Namurotypus sippeli)

During the early Mesozoic oxygen fell rapidly to around 15% during the Triassic then rose through the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods to about 30%, only to fall again to present levels during the Cenozoic Era. Incidentally, the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous (the K-Pg boundary event) was marked in the marine sedimentary record by unusually high amounts of charcoal. That is evidence for the Chixculub impact being accompanied by global wild fires that a high-oxygen atmosphere would have encouraged. The high oxygen levels of the Cretaceous marked the emergence of modern flowering plants – the angiosperms. Six British geoscientists have analysed the possible influence on the Earth System of this new and eventually dominant component of the terrestrial biosphere. (Belcher, C.M. et al. The rise of angiosperms strengthened fire feedbacks and improved the regulation of atmospheric oxygenNature Communications, v. 12, article 503; DOI 10.1038/s41467-020-20772-2)

The episodic occurrence of charcoal in sedimentary rocks bears witness to wildfires having affected terrestrial ecosystems since the decisive colonisation of the land by plants at the start of the Devonian 420 Ma ago. Fire and vegetation have since gone hand in hand, and the evolution of land plants has partly been through adaptations to burning. For instance the cones of some conifer species open only during wildfires to shed seeds following burning. Some angiosperm seeds, such as those of eucalyptus, germinate only after being subject to fire . The nature of wildfires varies according to particular ecosystems: needle-like foliage burns differently from angiosperm leaves; grassland fires differ from those in forests and so on. Massive fires on the Earth’s surface are not inevitable, however. Evidence for wildfires is absent during those times when the atmosphere’s oxygen content has dipped below an estimated 16%. The current oxygen level encourages fires in dry forest during drought, as those of Victoria in Australia and California in the US during 2020 amply demonstrated. It is possible that with oxygen above 25% dry forest would not regenerate without burning in the next dry season. Wet forest, as in Brazil and Indonesia, can burn under present conditions but only if set alight deliberately. Evidence of a global firestorm after the K-Pg extinction implies that tropical rain forest burns easily when oxygen is above 30%. So, how come the dominant flora of Earth’s huge tropical forests – the flowering angiosperms – evolved and hung on when conditions were ripe for them to burn on a massive scale?

Early angiosperms had small leaves suggesting small stature and growth in stands of open woodland [perhaps shrubberies] that favoured the fire protection of wetlands. ‘Weedy’ plants regenerate and reach maturity more quickly than do those species that are destined to produce tall trees. With endemic wildfires, tree-sized plants – e.g. the gymnosperms of the Mesozoic – cannot attain maturity by growing above the height of flames. Diminutive early angiosperms in a forest understory would probably outcompete their more ancient companions.  Yet to become the mighty trees of later rain forests angiosperms must somehow have regulated atmospheric oxygen so that it declined well below the level where wet forest is ravaged by natural wild fires. The oldest evidence for angiosperm rain forest dates to 59 Ma, when perhaps more primitive tropical trees had been almost wiped-out by wildfires. Did angiosperms also encourage wildfires, that consumed oxygen on a massive scale, as well as evolving to resist their affects on plant growth? Claire Belcher et al. suggest that they did, through series of evolutionary steps. Key to their stabilising oxygen levels at around 21%, the authors allege, was angiosperms’ suppression of weathering of phosphorus from rocks and/or transfer of that major nutrient from the land to the oceans. On land nitrogen is the most important nutrient for biomass, whereas phosphorus is the limiting factor in the ocean. Its reduction by angiosperm dominance on land thereby reduces carbon burial in ocean sediments. In a very roundabout way, therefore, angiosperms control the key factor in allowing atmospheric build-up of oxygen; by encouraging mass burning and suppressing carbon burial.  Today, about 84 percent of wildfires are started by anthropogenic activities. As yet we have little, if any, idea of how such disruption of the natural flora-fire system is going to affect future ecosystems. The ‘Pyrocene’ may be an outcome of the ‘Anthropocene’ …

Thawing permafrost, release of carbon and the role of iron

Projected shrinkage of permanently frozen ground i around the Arctic Ocean over the next 60 years

Global warming is clearly happening. The crucial question is ‘How bad can it get?’ Most pundits focus on the capacity of the globalised economy to cut carbon emissions – mainly CO2 from fossil fuel burning and methane emissions by commercial livestock herds. Can they be reduced in time to reverse the increase in global mean surface temperature that has already taken place and those that lie ahead? Every now and then there is mention of the importance of natural means of drawing down greenhouse gases: plant more trees; preserve and encourage wetlands and their accumulation of peat and so on. For several months of the Northern Hemisphere summer the planet’s largest bogs actively sequester carbon in the form of dead vegetation. For the rest of the year they are frozen stiff. Muskeg and tundra form a band across the alluvial plains of great rivers that drain North America and Eurasia towards the Arctic Ocean. The seasonal bogs lie above sediments deposited in earlier river basins and swamps that have remained permanently frozen since the last glacial period. Such permafrost begins at just a few metres below the surface at high latitudes down to as much as a kilometre, becoming deeper, thinner and more patchy until it disappears south of about 60°N except in mountainous areas. Permafrost is melting relentlessly, sometimes with spectacular results broadly known as thermokarst that involves surface collapse, mudslides and erosion by summer meltwater.

Thawing permafrost in Siberia and associated collapse structures

Permafrost is a good preserver of organic material, as shown by the almost perfect remains of mammoths and other animals that have been found where rivers have eroded their frozen banks. The latest spectacular find is a mummified wolf pup unearthed by a gold prospector from 57 ka-old permafrost in the Yukon, Canada. She was probably buried when a wolf den collapsed. Thawing exposes buried carbonaceous material to processes that release CO, as does the drying-out of peat in more temperate climes. It has long been known that the vast reserves of carbon preserved in frozen ground and in gas hydrate in sea-floor sediments present an immense danger of accelerated greenhouse conditions should permafrost thaw quickly and deep seawater heats up; the first is certainly starting to happen in boreal North America and Eurasia. Research into Arctic soils had suggested that there is a potential mitigating factor. Iron-3 oxides and hydroxides, the colorants of soils that overlie permafrost, have chemical properties that allow them to trap carbon, in much the same way that they trap arsenic by adsorption on the surface of their molecular structure (see: Screening for arsenic contamination, September 2008).

But, as in the case of arsenic, mineralogical trapping of carbon and its protection from oxidation to CO2 can be thwarted by bacterial action (Patzner, M.S. and 10 others 2020. Iron mineral dissolution releases iron and associated organic carbon during permafrost thaw. Nature Communications, v. 11, article 6329; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20102-6). Monique Patzner of the University of Tuebingen, Germany, and her colleagues from Germany, Denmark, the UK and the US have studied peaty soils overlying permafrost in Sweden that occurs north of the Arctic Circle. Their mineralogical and biological findings came from cores driven through the different layers above deep permafrost. In the layer immediately above permanently frozen ground the binding of carbon to iron-3 minerals certainly does occur. However, at higher levels that show evidence of longer periods of thawing there is an increase of reduced iron-2 dissolved in the soil water along with more dissolved organic carbon – i.e. carbon prone to oxidation to carbon dioxide. Also, biogenic methane – a more powerful greenhouse gas – increases in the more waterlogged upper sediments. Among the active bacteria are varieties whose metabolism involves the reduction of insoluble iron in ferric oxyhdroxide minerals to the soluble ferrous form (iron-2). As in the case of arsenic contamination of groundwater, the adsorbed contents of iron oxyhydroxides are being released as a result of powerful reducing conditions.

Applying their results to the entire permafrost inventory at high northern latitudes, the team predicts a worrying scenario. Initial thawing can indeed lock-in up to tens of billion tonnes of carbon once preserved in permafrost, yet this amounts to only a fifth of the carbon present in the surface-to-permafrost layer of thawing, at best. In itself, the trapped carbon is equivalent to between 2 to 5 times the annual anthropogenic release of carbon by burning fossil fuels. Nevertheless, it is destined by reductive dissolution of its host minerals to be emitted eventually, if thawing continues. This adds to the even vaster potential releases of greenhouse gases in the form of biogenic methane from waterlogged ground. However, there is some evidence to the contrary. During the deglaciation between 15 to 8 thousand years ago – except for the thousand years of the Younger Dryas cold episode – land-surface temperatures rose far more rapidly than happening at present. A study of carbon isotopes in air trapped as bubbles in Antarctic ice suggests that methane emissions from organic carbon exposed to bacterial action by thawing permafrost were much lower than claimed by Patzner et al. for present-day, slower thawing (see: Old carbon reservoirs unlikely to cause massive greenhouse gas release, study finds. Science Daily, 20 February 2020) – as were those released by breakdown of submarine gas hydrates.

Supernova at the start of the Pleistocene

This brief note takes up a thread begun in Can a supernova affect the Earth System? (August 2020). In February 2020 the brightness of Betelgeuse – the prominent red star at the top-left of the constellation Orion – dropped in a dramatic fashion. This led to media speculation that it was about to ‘go supernova’, but with the rise of COVID-19 beginning then, that seemed the least of our worries. In fact, astronomers already knew that the red star had dimmed many times before, on a roughly 6.4-year time scale. Betelgeuse is a variable star and by March 2020 it brightened once again: shock-horror over; back to the latter-day plague.

When stars more than ten-times the mass of the Sun run out of fuel for the nuclear fusion energy that keeps them ‘inflated’ they collapse. The vast amount of gravitational potential energy released by the collapse triggers a supernova and is sufficient to form all manner of exotic heavy isotopes by nucleosynthesis. Such an event radiates highly energetic and damaging gamma radiation, and flings off dust charged with a soup of exotic isotopes at very high speeds. The energy released could sum to the entire amount of light that our Sun has shone since it formed 4.6 billion years ago. If close enough, the dual ‘blast’ could have severe effects on Earth, and has been suggested to have caused the mass extinction at the end of the Ordovician Period.

Betelgeuse is about 700 light years away, massive enough to become a future supernova and its rapid consumption of nuclear fuel – it is only about 10 million years old – suggests it will do so within the next hundred thousand years. Nobody knows how close such an event needs to be to wreak havoc on the Earth system, so it is as well to check if there is evidence for such linked perturbations in the geological record. The isotope 60Fe occurs in manganese-rich crusts and nodules on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and also in some rocks from the Moon. It is radioactive with a half-life of about 2.6 million years, so it soon decays away and cannot have been a part of Earth’s original geochemistry or that of the Moon. Its presence may suggest accretion of debris from supernovas in the geologically recent past: possibly 20 in the last 10 Ma but with apparently no obvious extinctions. Yet that isotope of iron may also be produced by less-spectacular stellar processes, so may not be a useful guide.

There is, however, another short-lived radioactive isotope, of manganese (53Mn), which can only form under supernova conditions. It has been found in ocean-floor manganese-rich crusts by a German-Argentinian team of physicists  (Korschinek, G. et al. 2020. Supernova-produced 53Mn on Earth. Physical Review Letters, v. 125, article 031101; DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.125.031101). They dated the crusts using another short-lived cosmogenic isotope produced when cosmic rays transform the atomic nuclei of oxygen and nitrogen to 10Be that ended up in the manganese-rich crusts along with any supernova-produced  53Mn and 60Fe. These were detected in parts of four crusts widely separated on the Pacific Ocean floor. The relative proportions of the two isotopes matched that predicted for nucleosynthesis in supernovas, so the team considers their joint presence to be a ‘smoking gun’ for such an event.

The 10Be in the supernova-affected parts of the crusts yielded an age of 2.58 ± 0.43 million years, which marks the start of the Pleistocene Epoch, the onset of glacial cycles in the Northern Hemisphere and the time of the earliest known members of the genus Homo. A remarkable coincidence? Possibly. Yet cosmic rays, many of which come from supernova relics, have been cited as a significant source of nucleation sites for cloud condensation. Clouds increase the planet’s reflectivity and thus act to to cool it. This has been a contentious issue in the debate about modern climate change, some refuting their significance on the basis of a lack of correlation between cloud-cover data and changes in the flux of cosmic rays over the last century. Yet, over the five millennia of recorded history there have been no records of supernovas with a magnitude that would suggest they were able to bathe the night sky in light akin to that of daytime. That may be the signature of one capable of affecting the Earth system. Thousands that warrant being dubbed a ‘very large new star’are recorded, but none that ‘turned night into day’. The hypothesis seems to have ‘legs’, but so too do others, such as the slow influence on oceanic circulation of the formation of the Isthmus of Panama and other parochial mechanisms of changing the transfer of energy around our planet

See also: Stellar explosion in Earth’s proximity, eons ago. (Science Daily; 30 September 2020.)

End-Triassic mass extinction: evidence for oxygen depletion on the ocean floor

For British geologists of my generation the Triassic didn’t raise our spirits to any great extent. There’s quite a lot of it on the British Geological Survey 10-miles-to-the-inch geological map (South Sheet) but it is mainly muds, sandstones or pebble beds, generally red and largely bereft of fossils. For the Triassic’s 50 Ma duration following the end-Permian extinction at 252 Ma Britain was pretty much a desert in the middle of the Pangaea supercontinent. Far beyond our travel grants’ reach, the Triassic is a riot, as in the Dolomites of Northern Italy. Apart from a day trip to look at the Bunter Pebble Beds in a quarry near Birmingham and several weeks testing the load-bearing strength of the Keuper mudstones in the West Midlands (not far off zero) in a soil-mechanics lab, we did glimpse the then evocatively named Tea Green Marl (all these stratigraphic names have vanished). Conveniently they outcrop by the River Severn estuary, below its once-famous suspension bridge and close-by the M5 motorway. Despite the Tea Green Marl containing a bone bed with marine reptiles, time didn’t permit us to fossick, and, anyway, there was a nearby pub … The formation was said to mark a marine transgression leading on to the ‘far more interesting Jurassic’ – the reason we were in the area. We were never given even a hint that the end of the Triassic was marked by one of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions: such whopping events were not part of the geoscientific canon in the 1960s.

Pangaea just before the start of Atlantic opening at the end of the Triassic, showing the estimated extend of the CAMP large igneous province. The pink triangles show the sites investigated by He and colleagues.

At 201.3 Ma ago around 34 % of marine genera disappeared, comparable with the effect of the K-Pg extinction that ended the Mesozoic Era. Extinction of Triassic terrestrial animals is less quantifiable. Early dinosaurs made it through to diversify hugely during the succeeding Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. Probably because nothing famous ceased to be or made its first appearance, the Tr-J mass extinction hasn’t captured public attention in the same way as those with the K-Pg or the P-Tr acronyms.  But it did dramatically alter the course of biological evolution. The extinctions coincided with a major eruption of flood basalts known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), whose relics occur on either side of the eponymous ocean, which began to open definitively at about the same time. So, chances are, volcanic emissions are implicated in the extinction event, somehow (see: Is end-Triassic mass extinction linked to CAMP flood basalts? June 2013). Tianchen He  of Leeds University, UK and the China University of Geosciences and British and Italian colleagues have studied three Tr-J marine sections on either side of Pangaea: in Sicily, Northern Ireland and British Columbia (He, T. and 12 others 2020. An enormous sulfur isotope excursion indicates marine anoxia during the end-Triassic mass extinction. Science Advances, v. 6, article eabb6704; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abb6704). Their objective was to test the hypothesis that CAMP resulted in an episode of oceanic anoxia that caused the many submarine organisms to become extinct. Since eukaryote life depends on oxygen, a deficit would put marine animals of the time under great stress. Such events in the later Mesozoic account for global occurrences of hydrocarbon-rich, black marine shales – petroleum source rocks – in which hypoxia thwarted complete decay of dead organisms over long periods. However there is scant evidence for such rocks having formed ~201 Ma ago. Such as there is dates to about 150 ka younger than the Tr-J boundary in an Italian shallow marine basin. The issue of evidence is compounded by the fact that there are no ocean-floor sediments as old as that, thanks to their complete subduction as Pangaea broke apart in later times and its continental fragments drifted to their present configuration.

But there is an indirect way of detecting deep-ocean anoxia, in the inevitable absence of any Triassic and early Jurassic oceanic crust. It emerges from what happens to the stable isotopes of sulfur when there are abundant bacteria that use the reduction of sulfate (SO42-) to sulfide (S2-) ions. Such microorganisms thrive in anoxic conditions and produce abundant hydrogen sulfide, which in turn leads to the precipitation of dissolved iron as minute grains of pyrite (FeS2). This biogenic process selectively excludes 34S from the precipitated pyrite. As a result, at times of widespread marine reducing conditions seawater as a whole becomes enriched in 34S relative to sulfur’s other isotopes. The enrichment is actually expressed in the unreacted sulfate ions, and they may be precipitated as calcium sulfate or gypsum (CaSO4) in marine sediments deposited anywhere: He et al. focussed on such fractionation. They discovered large ‘spikes’ in the relative enrichment of 34S at the Tr-J boundary in shallow-marine sedimentary sequences exposed at the three sites. Moreover, they were able to estimate that the conditions on the now vanished bed of the Triassic ocean that gave rise to the spikes lasted for about 50 thousand years. The lack of dissolved oxygen resulted in a five-fold increase in pyrite burial in the now subducted ocean-floor sediments of that time. The authors suggest that the oxygen depletion stemmed from extreme global warming, which, in turn, encouraged methane production by other ocean-floor bacteria and, in a roundabout way, other chemical reactions that consumed free dissolved oxygen. Quite a saga of a network of interactions in the whole Earth system that may hold a dreadful warning for the modern Earth and ourselves.

Centenary of the Milanković Theory

A letter in the latest issue of Nature Geoscience (Cvijanovic, I. et al. 2020. One hundred years of Milanković cycles, v. Nature Geoscience , v.13p. 524–525; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-0621-2) reveals the background to Milutin Milanković’s celebrated work on the astronomical  driver of climate cyclicity. Although a citizen of Serbia, he had been born at Dalj, a Serbian enclave, in what was Austro-Hungary. Just before the outbreak of World War I in 2014, he returned to his native village to honeymoon with his new bride. The assassination (29 June 2014) in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian-Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip prompted Austro-Hungarian authorities to imprison Serbian nationals. Milanković was interned in a PoW camp. Fortunately, his wife and and a former Hungarian colleague managed to negotiate his release, on condition that he served his captivity, with a right to work but under police surveillance, in Budapest. It was under these testing conditions that he wrote his seminal Mathematical Theory of Heat Phenomena Produced by Solar Radiation; finished in 1917 but remaining unpublished until 1920 because of a shortage of paper during the war.

Curiously, Milanković was a graduate in civil engineering — parallels here with Alfred Wegener of Pangaea fame, who was a meteorologist — and practised in Austria. Appointed to a professorship in Belgrade in 1909, he had to choose a field of research. To insulate himself from the rampant scientific competitiveness of that era, he chose a blend of mathematics and astronomy to address climate change. During his period as a political prisoner Milanković became the first to explain how the full set of cyclic variations in Earth’s orbit — eccentricity, obliquity and precession — caused distinct variations in incoming solar radiation at different latitudes and changed on multi-thousand-year timescales. The gist  of what might have lain behind the cyclicity of ice ages had first been proposed by Scottish scientist James Croll almost half a century earlier, but it was Milutin Milanković who, as it were, put the icing on the cake. What is properly known as the Milanković-Croll Theory triumphed in the late 1970s as the equivalent of plate tectonics in palaeoclimatology after Nicholas Shackleton and colleagues teased out the predicted astronomical signals from time series of oxygen isotope variations in marine-sediment cores.

Appropriately, while Milanković’s revoluitionary ideas lacked corroborating geological evidence, one of the first to spring to his support was that other resilient scientific ‘prophet’, Alfred Wegener. Neither of them lived to witness their vindication.

The Younger Dryas and volcanic eruptions

The issue of the Younger Dryas (YD) cold ‘hiccup’  between 12.9 to 11.7 thousand years (ka) ago during deglaciation and general warming has been the subject of at least 10 Earth-logs commentaries in the last 15 years (you can check them via the Palaeoclimatology logs). I make no apologies for what might seem to be verging on a personal obsession, because it isn’t. That 1200-year episode is bound up with major human migrations on all the northern continents: it may be more accurate to say ‘retreats’. Cooling to near-glacial climates was astonishingly rapid, on the order of a few decades at most. The YD was a shock, and without it the major human transition from foraging to agriculture might, arguably, have happened more than a millennium before it did. There is ample evidence that at 12.9 ka ocean water in the North Atlantic was freshened by a substantial input of meltwater from the decaying ice sheet on northern North America, which shut down the Gulf Stream (see: Tracking ocean circulation during the last glacial period, April 2005; The Younger Dryas and the Flood, June 2006). Such an event has many supporters. Less popular is that it was caused by some kind of extraterrestrial impact, based on various lines of evidence assembled by what amounts to a single consortium of enthusiasts. Even more ‘outlandish’ is a hypothesis that it all kicked off with radiation from a coincident supernova in the constellation Vela in the Southern sky, which is alleged to have resulted in cosmogenic 14C and 10Be anomalies at 12.9 ka. Another coincidence has been revealed by 12.9 ka-old volcanic ash in a sediment core from a circular volcanogenic lake or maar in Germany (see: Did the Younger Dryas start and end at the same times across Europe? January 2014). Being in a paper that sought to chart climate variations during the YD in a precisely calibrated and continuous core, the implications of that coincidence have not been explored fully, until now.

The Laacher See caldera lake in the recently active Eifel volcanic province in western Germany

A consortium of geochemists from three universities in Texas, USA has worked for some time on cave-floor sediments in Hall’s Cave, Texas as they span the YD. In particular, they sought an independent test of evidence for the highly publicised and controversial causal impact in the form of anomalous concentrations of the highly siderophile elements (HSE) osmium, iridium, platinum, palladium and rhenium (Sun, N. et al. 2020. Volcanic origin for Younger Dryas geochemical anomalies ca. 12,900 cal B.P.. Science Advances, v. 6, article eaax8587; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax8587). There is a small HSE ‘spike’ at the 12.9 ka level, but there are three larger ones that precede it and one at about 11 ka. Two isotopes of the element osmium are often used to check the ultimate source of that element through the 187Os/188Os ratio, as can the relative proportions of the HSE elements compared with those in chondritic meteorites. The presence of spikes other than at the base of the YD does not disprove the extraterrestrial causal hypothesis, but the nature of those that bracket the mini-glacial time span not only casts doubt on it, they suggest a more plausible alternative. The 187Os/188Os data from each spike are ambiguous: they could either have arisen from partial melting of the mantle or from an extraterrestrial impact. But the relative HSE proportions point unerringly to the enriched layers having been inherited from volcanic gas aerosols. Two fit dated major eruptions of  the active volcanoes Mount Saint Helens (13.75 to 13.45 ka) and Glacier Peak (13.71 to 13.41 ka) in the Cascades province of western North America. Two others in the Aleutian and Kuril Arcs are also likely sources. The spike at the base of the YD exactly matches the catastrophic volcanic blast that excavated the Laacher See caldera in the Eifel region of western Germany, which ejected 6.3 km3 of sulfur-rich magma (containing 2 to 150 Mt of sulfur). Volcanic aerosols blasted into the stratosphere then may have dispersed throughout the Northern Hemisphere: a plausible mechanism for climatic cooling.

Sun et al. have not established the Laacher See explosion as the sole cause of the Younger Dryas. However, its coincidence with the shutdown of the Gulf Stream would have added a sudden cooling that may have amplified climatic effects of the disappearance of the North Atlantic’s main source of warm surface water. Effects of the Laacher See explosion may have been a tipping point, but it was one of several potential volcanic injections of highly reflective sulfate aerosols that closely precede and span the YD.

See also: Cooling of Earth caused by eruptions, not meteors (Science Daily, 31 July 2020)