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.

A new twist to Pleistocene climate cycles

The combined gravitational pulls of the sun and moon modulate variations in local tidal range. High spring tides occur when the two bodies are opposed at full moon or in roughly the same direction at new Moon. When the positions of sun and moon are at right angles (1st quarter and 3rd quarter) their gravitational pulls partly cancel each other to give neap tides. Consequently, there are two tidal cycles every lunar month.  In a similar way, the varying gravitational pulls of the planets during their orbital cycles impart a repetitive harmony to Earths astronomical behaviour. But their combined effects are on the order of tens of thousand years. Milutin Milankovich (1879-1958), a Serbian engineer, pondered on the possible causes of Earth’s climatic variations, particularly the repetition of ice ages. He was inspired by 19th century astronomers’ suggestion that maybe the gravitational effects of other planets might be a fruitful line of research. Milankovich focussed on how the shape of Earth’s orbit, the tilt of its rotational axis and the way the axis wobbles like that of a spinning top affect the amount of solar heating at all points on the surface: the effects of varying eccentricity, obliquity and precession, respectively.

 Earlier astronomers had calculated cycles of gravitational effects on Earth of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn of the three attributes of Earth’s astronomical behaviour and found periods of about 100, 41 and 23 thousand years (ka) respectively. The other 3 inner planets and the much more distant giants Uranus and Neptune also have gravitational effects on Earth, but they are negligible compared with those of the two nearest giant planets, because gravitation force varies with mass and inversely with the square of distance. Sadly, Milankovich was long dead when his hypothesis of astronomical climate forcing was verified in 1976 by frequency analysis of the record of oxygen isotopes in foraminifera found in two ocean sediment core from the Southern Indian Ocean. It revealed that all three periods interfered in complex ways during the Late Pleistocene, to dominate variations in sea-surface temperatures and the fluctuating volume of continental ice sheets for which δ18O is a proxy (see: Odds and ends about Milankovich and climate change; February 2017).

Precession of the axis of a spinning top and that of the Earth. At present the northern end of Earth’s axis points to what we now call the Pole Star. Around 11.5 ka from now it will point to the star Vega

This was as revolutionary for climatology as plate tectonics was for geology. We now know that in the early Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles were in lockstep with the 41 ka period of axial obliquity, and since 700 ka followed closely – but not perfectly – the 100 ka orbital eccentricity forcing. The transitional period between 1.25 and 0.7 Ma (the Mid-Pleistocene Transition or MPT) suggested neither one nor the other. Milankovich established that axial tilt variations have the greatest influence on solar heating, so the early 41 ka cycles were no surprise. But the dominance of orbital eccentricity on the last 700 ka certainly presented a puzzle, for it has by far the weakest influence on solar heating: 10 times less than those of axial obliquity and precession. The other oddity concerns the actual effect of axial precession on climate change. There are no obvious 23 ka cycles in the climate record, despite the precession signal being clear in frequency analysis and its effect on solar heating being almost as powerful as obliquity and ten times greater than that of orbital eccentricity. Precessional wobbling of the axis controls the time of year when one hemisphere or the other is closest to the Sun. At one extreme it will be the Northern and 11.5 ka later it will be the Southern. The times of solstices and equinoxes also change relative to the calendar that we use today.

There is an important, if obvious, point about astronomical forcing of climate. It is always there, with much the same complicated interactions between the factors: human activities have absolutely no bearing on them. Climatic ‘surprises’ are likely to continue!

Changes in ice-rafted debris (IRD) since 1.7 Ma in a sediment core from the North Atlantic (orange fill) compared with its oxygen-isotope (δ18O) record of changes in continental ice cover (blue fill). At the top are the modelled variations in 23 ka axial precession (lilac) and 41 ka obliquity (green). The red circles mark major interglacial episodes, blue diamonds show the onset of significant ice rafting and orange diamonds are terminations of ice-rafting (TIR). (Credit: Barker et al., Fig. 2)

Sea temperature and ice-sheet volume are not the only things that changed during the Pleistocene. Another kind of record from oceanic sediments concerns the varying proportion in the muddy layers of abnormally coarse sand grains and even small pebbles that have been carried by icebergs; they are known as ice-rafted debris (IRD). The North Atlantic Ocean floor has plenty of evidence for them appearing and disappearing on a layer-by-layer basis. They were first recognised in 1988 by an oceanographer called Helmut Heinrich, who proposed that six major layers rich in IRD in North Atlantic cores bear witness to iceberg ‘armadas’ launched by collapse, or ablation, at the front of surging ice sheets on Scandinavia, Greenland and eastern Canada. Heinrich events, along with Dansgaard-Oeschger events (rapid climatic warming followed by slower cooling) in the progression to the last glacial maximum have been ascribed to a variety of processes  operating on a ‘millennial’ scale. However, ocean-floor sediment cores are full of lesser fluctuations in IRD, back to at least 1.7 Ma ago. That record offers a better chance of explaining fluctuations in ice-sheet ablation. A joint European-US group has investigated their potential over the last decade or so (Barker, S. et al. 2022. Persistent influence of precession on northern ice sheet variability since the early Pleistocene. Science, v. 376, p. 961-967; DOI: 10.1126/science.abm4033). The authors noted that in each glacial cycle since 1.7 Ma the start of ice rafting consistently occurred during a time of decreasing axial obliquity. Yet the largest ablation events were linked to minima in the precession cycles. In the last 700 ka, such extreme events are associated with the terminations of each ice age.

In the earlier part of the record, the 41 ka obliquity ‘signal’ was sufficient to drive glacial-interglacial cycles, hence their much greater regularity and symmetry than those that followed the Mid-Pleistocene Transition. The earlier ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere also had consistently smaller extents than those after the MPT. Although the records show a role for precession in pre-MPT times in the form of ice-rafting events, the lesser effect of precession on summer warming at higher latitudes, compared with that of axial obliquity, gave it no decisive influence. After 700 ka the northern ice sheets extended much further south – as far as 40°N in North America – where summer warming would always have been commensurately greater than at high northern latitudes. So they were more susceptible to melting during the increased summer warming driven by the precession cycles. When maximum summer heating induced by axial precession in the Northern Hemisphere coincided with that of obliquity the ice sheets as a whole would have become prone to catastrophic collapse.

It is hard to say whether these revelations have a bearing on future climate. Of course, astronomical forcing will continue relentlessly, irrespective of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Earth has been in an interglacial for the last 11.5 ka, since the Younger Dryas; i.e. about half a precession cycle ago. The combination of obliquity- and precession-driven influences suggest that climate should be cooling and has been since 6,000 years ago, until the Industrial Revolution intervened. Can the gravitational pull of the giant planets prevent a runaway greenhouse effect, or will human effects defy astronomical forces that continually distort Earth’s astronomical behaviour?