Documenting the Palaeogene transition from ‘hothouse’ to ‘icehouse’

It is well-established that the first large ice sheets that presaged descent into the oscillating climate of the Neogene formed about 34 Ma ago (the Eocene-Oligocene boundary) on Antarctica. Some 21 Ma before, at the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary, global temperatures had leaped following what many believe was a massive blurt of methane previously held in cold storage in ocean-floor sediments as gas hydrate. A monstrous ‘greenhouse’ climatic system must sometime in the interim have reverted to the cooling trend begun at the outset of the Cenozoic. Defining that transformation relies on assembling and interpreting newly available, high-resolution records of climatic proxies through the Eocene and Early Oligocene (Tripati, A. et al. 2005. Eocene bipolar glaciation associated with global carbon cycle changes. Nature, v. 436, p. 341-346). Hitherto, the Eocene part of the ocean-floor sedimentary column had been poorly sampled, so that only broad trends showed.

As you might expect, the change was not a simple transition. At about 42 Ma the record of the Pacific Ocean calcite compensation depth (CCD – the depth at which carbonate remains are dissolved in the deep oceans) shows a remarkable perturbation long before the CCD dipped decisively from about 3.5 km to around 5 km at the start of the Oligocene. A close look at the oxygen isotope record of that age in a highly detailed marine sediment core shows an increase in d 18O that corresponds to either some 6° of cooling or a 120 m fall in sea-level due to build-up somewhere of ice on land. Coinciding with this perturbation are shifts in the carbon-isotope record in carbonates. The authors suggest that the mid-Eocene cooling and continental glaciation that produced falling sea level triggered the weathering of shallow-water carbonates, which together with river transport increased the oceans’ alkalinity. That would have increased deep-water carbonate formation enormously and accelerated the effective ‘burial’ of carbon from the atmosphere

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