Effects of ancient carbon releases suggest possible scenarios for future climate

New findings reveal a precursor event before the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, giving scientists a fresh perspective on future global climate scenarios

A massive release of greenhouse gases, likely triggered by volcanic activity, caused a period of extreme global warming known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) about 56 million years ago. A new study now confirms that the PETM was preceded by a smaller episode of warming and ocean acidification caused by a shorter burst of carbon emissions.

Marine sediments contain the microscopic shells of organisms called foraminifera that lived in the surface waters. The chemical composition of these shells records the environmental conditions in which they formed. (Photo credit: Marci Robinson/USGS)

The new findings, published March 16 in Science Advances, indicate that the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere during this precursor event was about the same as the current cumulative carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities. As a result, the short-lived precursor event represents what might happen if current emissions can be shut down quickly, while the much more extreme global warming of the PETM shows the consequences of continuing to release carbon into the atmosphere at the current rate.

“It was a short-lived burp of carbon equivalent to what we’ve already released from anthropogenic emissions,” said coauthor James Zachos, professor of Earth and planetary sciences and Ida Benson Lynn Chair of Ocean Health at UC Santa Cruz. “If we turned off emissions today, that carbon would eventually get mixed into the deep sea and its signal would disappear, because the deep-sea reservoir is so huge.”

This process would take hundreds of years—a long time by human standards, but short compared to the tens of thousands of years it took for Earth’s climate system to recover from the more extreme PETM.

Jim Zachos holds a sediment core from the seafloor showing the red clay layer that marks the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a period of extreme global warming and ocean acidification around 56 million years ago. (Photo by Ira Block/National Geographic)

The new findings are based on an analysis of marine sediments that were deposited in shallow waters along the U.S. Atlantic coast and are now part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain. At the time of the PETM, sea levels were higher, and much of Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey were under water. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has drilled sediment cores from this region which the researchers used for the study.


The PETM is marked in marine sediments by a major shift in carbon isotope composition and other evidence of dramatic changes in ocean chemistry as a result of the ocean absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The marine sediments contain the microscopic shells of tiny sea creatures called foraminifera that lived in the surface waters of the ocean. The chemical composition of these shells records the environmental conditions in which they formed and reveals evidence of warmer surface water temperatures and ocean acidification.

First author Tali Babila began the study as a postdoctoral fellow working with Zachos at UC Santa Cruz and is now at the University of Southampton, U.K. Novel analytical methods developed at Southampton enabled the researchers to analyze the boron isotope composition of individual foraminifera to reconstruct a detailed record of ocean acidification. This was part of a suite of geochemical analyses they used to reconstruct environmental changes during the precursor event and the main PETM.

“Previously, thousands of foraminifera fossil shells were needed for boron isotope measurement. Now we are able to analyze a single shell that’s only the size of a grain of sand,” Babila said.

Tim Stephens, University of California Santa Cruz, 16 March 2022. Press release.

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