A middle Eocene carbon cycle conundrum

The Middle Eocene Climatic Optimum (MECO) was an approximately 500,000-year-long episode of widespread ocean–atmosphere warming about 40 million years ago, superimposed on a long-term middle Eocene cooling trend. It was marked by a rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, biotic changes and prolonged carbonate dissolution in the deep ocean. However, based on carbon cycle theory, a rise in atmospheric CO2 and warming should have enhanced continental weathering on timescales of the MECO. This should have in turn increased ocean carbonate mineral saturation state and carbonate burial in deep-sea sediments, rather than the recorded dissolution. We explore several scenarios using a carbon cycle model in an attempt to reconcile the data with theory, but these simulations confirm the problem. The model only produces critical MECO features when we invoke a sea-level rise, which redistributes carbonate burial from deep oceans to continental shelves and decreases shelf sediment weathering. Sufficient field data to assess this scenario is currently lacking. We call for an integrated approach to unravel Earth system dynamics during carbon cycle variations that are of intermediate timescales (several hundreds of thousands of years), such as the MECO.

Sluijs A., Zeebe R. E., Bijl P. K. & Bohaty S. M., in press. A middle Eocene carbon cycle conundrum. Nature Geoscience. Article.

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