Evidence for rapid climate change in the Mesozoic–Palaeogene greenhouse world

Hugh C. Jenkyns


The best–documented example of rapid climate change that characterized the so–called ‘greenhouse world’ took place at the time of the Palaeocene–Eocene boundary: introduction of isotopically light carbon into the ocean–atmosphere system, accompanied by global warming of 5–8 °C across a range of latitudes, took place over a few thousand years. Dissociation, release and oxidation of gas hydrates from continental–margin sites and the consequent rapid global warming from the input of greenhouses gases are generally credited with causing the abrupt negative excursions in carbon– and oxygen–isotope ratios. The isotopic anomalies, as recorded in foraminifera, propagated downwards from the shallowest levels of the ocean, implying that considerable quantities of methane survived upward transit through the water column to oxidize in the atmosphere. In the Mesozoic Era, a number of similar events have been recognized, of which those at the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, in the early Toarcian (Jurassic) and in the early Aptian (Cretaceous) currently carry the best documentation for dramatic rises in temperature. In these three examples, and in other less well–documented cases, the lack of a definitive time–scale for the intervals in question hinders calculation of the rate of environmental change. However, comparison with the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) suggests that these older examples could have been similarly rapid. In both the early Toarcian and early Aptian cases, the negative carbon–isotope excursion precedes global excess carbon burial across a range of marine environments, a phenomenon that defines these intervals as oceanic anoxic events (OAEs). Osmium–isotope ratios (187Os/188Os) for both the early Toarcian OAE and the PETM show an excursion to more radiogenic values, demonstrating an increase in weathering and erosion of continental crust consonant with elevated temperatures. The more highly buffered strontium–isotope system (87Sr/86Sr) also shows relatively more radiogenic signatures during the early Toarcian OAE, but the early Aptian and Cenomanian–Turonian OAEs show the reverse effect, implying that increased rates of sea–floor spreading and hydrothermal activity dominated over continental weathering in governing sea–water chemistry. The Cretaceous climatic optimum (late Cenomanian to mid Turonian) also shows evidence for abrupt cooling episodes characterized by episodic invasion of boreal faunas into temperate and subtropical regions and changes in terrestrial vegetation; drawdown of CO2 related to massive marine carbon burial (OAE) may be implicated here. The absence of a pronounced negative carbon–isotope excursion preceding the Cenomanian–Turonian OAE indicates that methane release is not necessarily connected to global deposition of marine organic carbon, but relative thermal maxima are common to all OAEs. ‘Cold snaps’ have also been identified from the Mesozoic record but their duration, causes and effects are poorly documented.

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