The last of five written papers in my 1967 final-year exams was, as always, set by the ‘Prof’. One question was ‘Rock and rhythm: discuss’ – it was the 60s. Cyclicity has been central to observational geology, especially to stratigraphy, the difference from that era being that rhythms have been quantified and the rock sequences they repeat have been linked to processes, in many cases global ones. The most familiar cyclicity to geologists brought up in Carboniferous coalfields, or indeed any area that preserves Carboniferous marine and terrestrial rocks, is the cyclothem of, roughly, seat-earth – coal – marine shale – fluviatile sandstone – seat-earth and so on. Matched to the duration of Carboniferous to Permian glaciations of the then southern hemisphere, and with the relatively new realisation that global sea level goes down and up as ice caps wax and wane, the likeliest explanation is eustatic regression and transgression of marine conditions in coastal areas in response to global climate change. Statistical analysis of cyclothemic sequences unearths frequency patterns that match well those of astronomical climate forcing proved for Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles.
The Milankovich signals of the Carboniferous are now part of the geological canon, but rocks of that age more finely layered than sediments of the tropical continental margins do occur. Among them are rhythmic sequences interpreted as lake deposits from high latitudes, akin to varves formed in such environments nowadays. Those from south-western Brazil present spectacular evidence of climate change in the Late Carboniferous and Early Permian (Franco, D.R. et al. 2012. Millennial-scale climate cycles in Permian-Carboniferous rhythmites: Permanent feature throughout geological time. Geology, v. 40, p. 19-22). They comprise couplets of fine-grained grey quartz sandstones from 1-10 cm thick interleaved with black mudstones on a scale of millimetres, which together build up around 45 m of sediment. Their remanent magnetism and magnetic susceptibility vary systematically with the two components. Frequency analysis of plots of both against depth in the sequence show clear signs of regular repetitions. Low-frequency peaks reveal the now well-known influence of astronomical forcing of Upper Palaeozoic climate, but it is in the lower amplitude, higher frequency part of the magnetic spectrum that surprises emerge from a variety of peaks. They are reminiscent of the Dansgaard-Oeschger events of the last Pleistocene glacial, marked by sudden warming and slow cooling while world climate cooled towards the last glacial maximum (~1.5 ka cyclicity) and Heinrich events, the ‘iceberg armadas’ that occurred on a less regular 3 to 8 ka basis. There are also signs of the 2.4 ka solar cycle. The relatively brief cycles would have been due to events in a very different continental configuration from today’s – that of the supercontinent Pangaea – and their very presence suggests a more general global influence over short-term climate shifts that has been around for 300 Ma or more.
Closer to us in time, and on a much finer time scale are almost 100 m of finely laminated shales from the marine Late Cretaceous of California’s Great Valley (Davies, A. et al. 2012. El Niño-Southern Oscillation variability from the late Cretaceous Marca Shale of California. Geology, v. 40, p. 15-18). The laminations contain fossil diatoms: organisms that are highly sensitive to environmental conditions and whose species are easily distinguished from each other. It emerges from studies of the diatoms in each lamination set that they record an annual cycle of seasonal change related to marine upwellings and their varying strengths, with repeated evidence for influx of fine sediment derived from land above sea level and for varying degrees of bioturbation that suggests periods of oxygenation. Spectral analysis of the intensity of bioturbation, which assumes the lamina are annual, and other fluctuating features reveals peaks that are remarkably close to those of the ENSO cyclicity that operates at present, at 2.1-2.8 and 4.1-6.3 a, as well as repetitions with a decadal frequency.
The annual cycles bear similar hallmarks to those imposed by the monsoonal conditions familiar from modern California, which fluctuated in the Late Cretaceous in much the same way as it does now – roughly speaking, alternating El Niño and La Niña conditions. That is not so surprising, as the relationship between California and the Pacific Ocean in the Cretaceous would not have been dissimilar from that now. The real importance of the study is that it concerns a period in Earth’s climate history characterised by greenhouse conditions, that some predict would create a permanent El Niño – an abnormal warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific that prevents the cold Humboldt Current along the Andean coast of South America from supplying nutrient to tropical waters. The very cyclicity recorded by the Marca Shale strongly suggests that the ENSO is a stable feature of the western Americas. Recent clear implications of ENSO having teleconnections that affect global climate, on this evidence, may not break down with anthropogenic global warming. This confirms similar studies from the Palaeogene and Neogene Periods.