About 56 Ma ago there occurred some of the most dramatic biological changes since the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary. They included rapid expansion and diversification of mammals and land plants, and a plunge in the number of deep-water foraminifera. Global cooling from the Cretaceous hothouse was rudely reversed by sudden global warming of about 5 to 10°C. Some climatologists have ascribed bugbear status to the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) as a possible scenario for future anthropogenic global warming. The widely accepted cause is a massive blurt into the Palaeocene atmosphere of greenhouse gases, but what caused it is enthusiastically debated. The climate shift is associated with a sudden decrease in the proportion of 13C in marine sediments: a negative spike in δ13C. Because photosynthesis favours the lighter 12C, organic matter has a low δ13C, so a great deal of buried organic carbon may have escaped from the ocean floor, most likely in the form of methane gas. However, massive burning of living terrestrial biomass would produce the same carbon-isotope signal, but absence of evidence for mass conflagration supports methane release. Methane is temporarily held in marine sediments in the form of gas hydrate (clathrate), an ice-like solid that forms at low temperatures on the deep seafloor. Warming of deep sea water or a decrease in pressure, if sea level falls, destabilise clathrates thereby releasing methane gas: the ‘clathrate gun hypothesis’. The main issue is what mechanism may have pulled the trigger for a monstrous methane release.
Many have favoured a major igneous event. Between 55.0 and 55.8 Ma basaltic magmatism– continuing today in Iceland – formed the North Atlantic Igneous Province. It involved large-scale intrusion of sills as well as outpourings of flood basalts and coincided with the initial rifting of Greenland from northern Europe (see: Smoking gun for end-Palaeocene warming: an igneous connection; July/August 2004). The occurrence of impact ejecta in end-Palaeocene sediments off the east coast of the US has spawned an extraterrestrial hypothesis for the warming, which could account for the negative spike in δ13C as the product of a burning terrestrial biosphere (see: Impact linked to the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary event; October 2016). Less headline-grabbing is the possibility that the event was part and parcel of the Milankovich effect: an inevitability in the complex interplay between the three astronomical components that affect Earth’s orbital and rotational behaviour: eccentricity, axial tilt and precession. A group of geoscientists from China and the US, led by Mingsong Li of Peking University, have investigated in minute detail the ups and downs of δ13C around 56 Ma in drill cores recovered from a sequence of Palaeocene and Eocene continental-shelf sediments in Maryland, USA (Li, M., Bralower, T.J. et al. 2022. Astrochronology of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Nature Communications, v. 13, Article 5618; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-33390-x).
The study involved sampling sediment for carbon- and oxygen-isotope analysis at depth intervals between 3 and 10 cm over a 35 m section through the lower Eocene and uppermost Palaeocene. Calcium abundances in the core were logged at a resolution of 5 mm using an X-ray fluorescence instrument. The results link to variations in CaCO3 in the sediments across the PETM event. Another dataset involves semi-continuous measurements of magnetic susceptibility (MS) along the core. These measurements are able to indicate variations in delivery to the ocean of dissolved calcium and detrital magnetic minerals as climate and continental weathering vary through time. They are widely known to be good recorders of Milankovich cycles. After processing, the Ca and MS data sets show cyclical fluctuations relative to depth within the cores. ‘Tuning’ their frequencies to the familiar time series of Milankovich astronomical climate forcing reveals a close match to what would be expected if the climate fluctuations were paced by the 26 ka axial precession signal. My post of 17 June 2022 about the influence of precession over ‘iceberg armadas’ during the Pleistocene might be useful to re-read in this context. This correlation enabled the researchers to convert depth in the cores to time, so that the timing of fluctuations in carbon- and oxygen-isotope data that the PETM had created could be considered against various hypotheses for its cause. The ‘excursions’ of both began at the same time and reached the maxima of their changes from Palaeocene values over about 6,000 years. The authors consider that is far too long to countenance the release of methane as a result of asteroidal impact, or by massive burning of terrestrial vegetation. The other option that the beginning of the North Atlantic Igneous Province had been the trigger may also be ruled out on two grounds: the magmatism began earlier, and it continued for far longer. The onset of the PETM coincides with an extreme in precession-related climatic forcing. So Li et al. consider that a quirk in the Milankovich Effect could have played a role in triggering massive methane release. This might also explain features of the global calcium record in seafloor sediments as results of a brief period of ocean acidification during the PETM. Such an event would play havoc with carbonate-secreting organisms, such as foraminifera, by lowering the dissolved carbonate ion content on which they depend for their shells: hence their suffering considerable extinction. Of course, the other elements of astronomical forcing – eccentricity and axial tilt – would also have been operating on global climate at the time. The long-term 100 and 405 ka eccentricity cycles may have played a role in amplifying warming, which may have resulted in increased burial of organic carbon and thus the amount of methane buried beneath the seabed.