Milankovich precession and the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

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.

Massive leak of natural gas – mainly methane – off Sweden in the Baltic Sea, from the probably sabotaged Nord Stream pipeline. (Source: Swedish coastguard agency)

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.

The Earth System in action: land plants affected composition of continental crust

The essence of the Earth System is that all processes upon, above and beneath the surface interact in a bewildering set of connections. Matter and energy in all their forms are continually being exchanged, deployed and moved through complex cycles: involving rocks and sediments; water in its various forms; gases in the atmosphere; magmas; moving tectonic plates and much else besides. The central and massively dominant role of plate tectonics connects surface processes with those of our planet’s interior: the lithosphere, mantle and, arguably, the core. Interactions between the Earth System’s components impose changes in the dynamics and chemical processes through which it operates. Living processes have been a part of this for at least 3.5 billion years ago, in part through their role in the carbon cycle and thus the Earth’s climatic evolution. During the Silurian Period life became a pervasive component of the continental surface, first in the form of plants, to be followed by animals during the Devonian Period. Those novel changes have remained in place since about 430 Ma ago, plants being the dominant base of continental ecosystems and food chains.

Schematic diagram showing changes in river systems and their alluvium before and after the development of land plants. (Credit: Based on Spencer et al. 2022, Fig 4)

Land plants exude a variety of chemicals from their roots that break down rock to yield nutrient elements. So they play a dominant role in the formation of soil and are an important means of rock weathering and the production of clay minerals from igneous and metamorphic minerals. Plant root systems bind near-surface sediments thus increasing their resistance to erosion by wind and water, and to mass movement under gravity. This binding and plant canopies efficiently reduce dust transport, slow water flow on slopes and decrease the sediment load of flowing water. Plants and their roots also stabilise channels systems. There is much evidence that before the Devonian most rivers comprised continually migrating braided channels in which mainly coarse sands and gravels were rapidly deposited while silts and muds in suspension were shifted to the sea. Thereafter flow became dominated by larger and fewer channels meandering across wide tracts on which fine sediment could accumulate as alluvium on flood plains when channels broke their banks. Land plants more efficiently extract CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and the new regime of floodplains could store dead plant debris in the muds and also in thick peat deposits. As a result, greenhouse warming had dwindled by the Carboniferous, encouraging global cooling and glaciation. 

Judging the wider influence of the ‘greening of the land’ on other parts of the Earth system, particularly those that depend on internal  magmatic processes, relies on detecting geochemical changes in minerals formed as direct outcomes of plate tectonics. Christopher Spencer of Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada and co-workers at the Universities of Southampton, Cambridge and Aberdeen in the UK, and the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan set out to find and assess such a geochemical signal (Spencer, C., Davies, N., Gernon, T. et al. 2022. Composition of continental crust altered by the emergence of land plants. Nature Geoscience, v. 15 online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-00995-2). Achieving that required analyses of a common mineral formed when magmas crystallise: one that can be precisely dated, contains diverse trace elements and whose chemistry remains little changed by later geological events. Readers of Earth-logs might have guessed that would be zircon (ZrSiO). Being chemically unreactive and hard, small zircon grains resist weathering and the abrasion of transport to become common minor minerals in sediments. Thousands of detrital zircon grains teased out from sediments have been dated and analysed in the last few decades. They span almost the entirety of geological history. Spencer et al. compiled a database of over 5,000 zircon analyses from igneous rocks formed at subduction zones over the last 720 Ma, from 183 publications by a variety of laboratories.

The approach considered two measures: the varying percentages of mudrocks in continental sedimentary sequences since 600 Ma ago; aspects of the hafnium- (Hf) and oxygen-isotope proportions measured in the zircons using mass spectrometry and their changes over the same time. Before ~430 Ma the proportion of mudrocks in continental sedimentary sequences is consistently much lower than it is in post post-Silurian, suggesting a link with the rise of continental plant cover (see second paragraph). The deviation of the 176Hf/177Hf ratio in an igneous mineral from that of chondritic meteorites (the mineral’s εHf value) is a guide to the source of the magma, negative values indicating a crustal source, whereas positive values suggest a mantle origin. The relative proportions of two oxygen isotopes 18O and 16O  in zircons, expressed as δ18O, indicates the proportion of products of weathering, such as clay minerals, involved in magma production – 18O selectively moves from groundwater to clay minerals when they form, increasing their δ18O.

While the two geochemical parameters express very different geological processes, the authors noticed that before ~430 Ma the two showed low correlation between their values in zircons. Yet, surprisingly, the parameters showed a considerable and consistent increase in their correlation in younger zircons, directly paralleling the ‘step change’ in the proportions of mudstones after the Silurian. Complex as their arguments are, based on several statistical tests, Spencer et al. conclude that the geologically sudden change in zircon geochemistry ultimately stems from land plants’ stabilisation of river systems. As a result more clay minerals formed by protracted weathering, increasing the δ18O in soils when they were eroded and transported. When the resulting marine mudrocks were subducted they transferred their oxygen-isotope proportions to magmas when they were partially melted.

That bolsters the case for dramatic geological consequences of the ‘greening of the land’. But did its effect on arc magmatism fundamentally change the bulk composition of post-Silurian additions to the continental crust? To be convinced of that I would like to see if other geochemical parameters in subduction-related magmas changed after 430 Ma. Many other elements and isotopes in broadly granitic rocks have been monitored since the emergence of high-precision rock-analysing technologies around 50 years ago. There has been no mention, to my knowledge, that the late-Silurian involved a magmatic game-changer to match that which occurred in the Archaean, also revealed by hafnium and oxygen isotopes in much more ancient zircons.   

See also:

Did giant impacts trigger formation of the bulk of continental crust?

Earth is the only one of the rocky Inner Planets that has substantial continental crust, the rest being largely basaltic worlds. That explains a lot. For a start, it means that almost 30 percent of its surface area stands well above the average level of the basaltic ocean basins – more than 5 km – because of the difference in density between continental and oceanic lithosphere. Without continents and the inability of subduction to draw them back  into the mantle  Earth would remain a water-world as it is thought to have been during the Hadean and early Archaean Eons. The complex processes involved in geochemical differentiation and the repeated reworking of the continents through continual tectonic and sedimentary processes has further enriched parts of them in all manner of useful elements and chemical compounds. And, of course, the land has had a huge biosphere since the Devonian period that subsequently helped to draw down CO­2 well as evolving us.

It has been estimated that during the Archaean (4.0 to 2.5 Ga) around 75% of continental crust formed. Much of this Archaean crust is made up of sodium-rich granitoids: grey tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite (TTG) gneisses in the main. Their patterns of trace elements strongly suggest that their parent magmas formed by partial melting at shallow depths (25 to 50 km). Their source was probably basalts altered by hydrothermal fluids to amphibolites, unlike the post-Archaean dominance of melting associated with subducted slabs of lithosphere. Yet most of the discourse on early continents has centred on when plate tectonics began and when they became strong enough to avoid disruption into subductible ‘chunks’. Yet 10 years ago geochemists at the University of St Andrews in Scotland used hafnium and oxygen isotopes in Archaean zircons to suggest that the first continents grew very quickly in the Hadean and early Archaean at around 3.0 km3 yr-1, slowing to an average of 0.8 km3 yr-1 after 3.5 Ga. In 2017 Geochemists working on one of the oldest cratons in the Pilbara region of Western Australia developed a new, multistage model for early crust formation that did not have a subduction component. They proposed that high degrees of mantle melting first produced a mafic-ultramafic crust of komatiites, which became the source for a 3.5 Ga mafic magma with a geochemistry similar to those of modern island-arc basalts. If a crust of that composition attained a thickness greater than 25 km and was itself partially melted at its base, theoretically it could have generated TTG magma and Archaean continental crust. Three members of that team from Curtin University, Western Australia, and others have now contributed to formulating a new possibility for early continent formation (Johnson, T.E. et al. 2022.  Giant impacts and the origin and evolution of continents. Nature, v. 608, p. 330–335; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04956-y).

The distinctive Archaean granite-greenstone terrain of the Pilbara craton of Western Australia. TTG granites are shown in reds in the form of domes, which are enveloped by metamorphosed sediments and mafic-ultramafic volcanics in khaki and emerald green. Other colours signify post Archaean rocks. (Credit: Warren B. Hamilton; Earth’s first two billion years. GSA, 2007)

Tim Johnson and colleagues base their views on oxygen isotopes in Archaean zircon grains from the Pilbara. The zircons’ O-isotopes fall into three kinds of cluster: low 18O that indicate a hydrothermally altered source; intermediate 18O suggesting a mantle source; high 18O signifying contamination by metasedimentary and volcanic rocks. The first two alternate in the 3.6 to 3.4 Ga period; 4 clusters with mantle connotations occupy the 3.4 to 3.0 Ga range; a cluster with supracrustal contamination follows 3.0 Ga. This record can be reconciled agreeably with the geological and broad geochemical history of the Pilbara craton. But there is another connection: the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) recognised on most rocky bodies in the Solar System.

Bodies with much more sluggish internal processes than the Earth have preserved much of their earliest surfaces and the damage they have suffered since the Hadean. The Moon is the best example. Its earliest rocks in the lunar Highlands record a vast number of impact craters. Their relative ages, deduced from older ones being affected by later ones, backed up by radiometric ages of materials produced by impacts, such as melt spherules and basaltic magmas that flooded the lunar maria, revealed the time span of the LHB. The maria formed between 4.2 and 3.2 billion years ago and the damage done then is shown starkly by the dark maria that make up the ‘face’ of the Man in the Moon. The lunar bombardment was at a maximum between 4.1 and 3.8 Ga but continued until 3.5 Ga, dropping off sharply from its maximum effects. Earth preserves no tangible sign of the LHB, but because it is larger and more massive than the Moon, and both have always been in much the same orbit around the Sun, it must have been subject to impacts on a far grander scale. Projectiles carry kinetic energy that enables them to do geological work when they impact: 1/2 x mass x speed2. The minimum speed of an impact is the same as the target’s escape velocity – 2.4 km s-1 for the Moon and 11.2 km s-1 for the Earth. So the energy of an object hitting the Earth would be 20 times more than if it struck the lunar surface. Taking into account the Earth’s larger cross sectional area, the amount of geological work done here by the LHB would have been as much as 300 times greater than that on Earth’s battered satellite.

The Earth’s early geological history was rarely seen in that context before the 21st century, but that is the framework plausibly adopted by Johnson and colleagues. Archaean  sediments in South Africa contain several beds of impact spherules older than 3.2 Ga, as do those of the Pilbara. The LHB also left a geochemical imprint on Earth in the form of anomalous isotope proportions of tungsten in 3.8 Ga gneisses from West Greenland (See: Tungsten and Archaean heavy bombardment and Evidence builds for major impacts in Early Archaean; respectively, July and August 2002). Johnson et al. suggest a 3-stage process for the evolution of the Pilbara craton: First a giant impact akin to the lunar Maria that formed a nucleus of mafic-ultramafic crust from shallow melting of the mantle; its chemical fractionation to produce low-magnesium basalts; and in turn their melting to form TTG magmas and thus a continental nucleus. They conclude:

‘The search for evidence of the Late Heavy Bombardment on Earth has been a long one. However, all along it seems that the evidence was right beneath our feet.’

I agree wholeheartedly, but would add that, until quite recently, many scientists who referred to extraterrestrial influences over Earth history were either pilloried or lampooned by their peers as purveyors of ‘whizz-bang’ science. So, many ‘kept their powder dry’. The weight of evidence and a reversal of wider opinion over the last couple of decades has made such hypotheses acceptable. But it has also opened the door to less plausible notions, such as an impact cause for sudden climate change and even for mythological catastrophes such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah!

See also: Timmer, J. 2022. Did giant impacts start plate tectonics? arsTechnica 11 August 2022.

An Early Archaean Waterworld

In Earth-logs you may have come across the uses of oxygen isotopes, mainly in connection with their variations in the fossils of marine organisms and in ice cores. The relative proportion of the ‘heavy’ 18O isotope to the ‘light’ 16O, expressed by δ18O, is a measure of the degree of fractionation between these isotopes under different temperature conditions when water evaporates. What happens is that H216O, in which the lighter isotope is bound up, slightly more easily evaporates thus enriching the remaining liquid water in H218O. As a result the greater the temperature of surface water and the more of evaporates, the higher is its δ18O value. Shells that benthonic (surface-dwelling) organism secrete are made mainly of the mineral calcite (CaCO3). Their formation involves extracting dissolved calcium ions and CO2 plus an extra oxygen from the water itself, as calcite’s formula suggests. So plankton shells fossilised  in ocean-floor sediments carry the δ18O and thus a temperature signal of surface water at the place and time in which they lived. Yet this signal is contaminated with another signal: that of the amount of water evaporated from the ocean surface (with lowered  δ18O) that has ended up falling as snow and then becoming trapped in continental ice sheets. The two can be separated using the δ18O found in shells of bottom-dwelling (benthonic) organisms, because deep ocean water maintains a similar low temperature at all time (about 2°C). Benthonic δ18O is the main guide to the changing volume of continental ice throughout the last 30 million year or so. This ingenious approach, developed about 50 years ago, has become the key to understanding past climate changes as reflected in records of ice volume and ocean surface temperature. Yet these two factors are not the only ones at work on marine oxygen isotopes.

Artistic impression of the Early Archaean Earth dominated by oceans (Credit:

When rainwater flows across the land, clays in the soil formed by weathering of crystalline rocks preferentially extract 18O and thus leave their own δ18O mark in ocean water. This has little, if any, effect on the use of δ18O to track past climate change, simply because the extent of the continents hasn’t changed much over the last 2 billion years or so. Likewise, the geological record over that period clearly indicates that rain, wet soil and water flowing across the land have all continued somewhere or other, irrespective of climate. However, one of the thorny issues in Earth science concerns changes of the area of continents in the very long term. They are suspected but difficult to tie down. Benjamin Johnson of the University of Colorado and Boswell Wing of Iowa State University, USA, have closely examined oxygen isotopes in 3.24 billion-year old rocks from a relic of Palaeoarchaean ocean crust from the Pilbara district of Western Australia that shows pervasive evidence of alteration by hot circulating ocean water (Johnson, B.W. & Wing, B.A. 2020. Limited Archaean continental emergence reflected in an early Archaean 18O-enriched ocean. Nature Geoscience, v. 13, p. 243-248; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-0538-9). Interestingly, apart from the composition of the lavas, the altered rocks look just the same as much more recent examples of such ophiolites.

The study used many samples taken from the base to the top of the ophiolite along some 20 traverses across its outcrop. Overall the isotopic analyses suggested that the circulating water responsible for the hydrothermal alteration 3.2 Ga ago was much more enriched in 18O than is modern ocean water. The authors’ favoured explanation is that much less continental crust was exposed above sea level during the Palaeoarchaean Era than in later times and so far less clay was around on land. That does not necessarily imply that less continental crust existed at that time compared with the Archaean during the following 700 Ma , merely that the continental ‘freeboard’ was so low that only a few islands emerged above the waves. By the end of the Archaean 2.5 Ga ago the authors estimate that oceanic δ18O had decreased to approximately modern levels. This they attribute to a steady increase in weathering of the emerging continental landmasses and the extraction of 18O into new, clay-rich soils as the continents emerged above sea level. How this scenario of a ‘drowned’ world developed is not discussed. One possibility is that the average depth of the oceans then was considerably less than it was in later times: i.e. sea level stood higher because the volume available to contain ocean water was less. One possible explanation for that and the subsequent change in oxygen isotopes might be a transition during the later Archaean Eon into modern-style plate tectonics. The resulting steep subduction forms deep trench systems able to ‘hold’ more water. Prior to that faster production of oceanic crust resulted in what are now the ocean abyssal plains being buoyed up by warmer young crust that extended beneath them. Today they average around 4000 m deep, thanks to the increased density of cooled crust, and account for a large proportion of the volume of modern ocean basins.