Could Human CO2 Emissions Cause Another PETM?

When it comes to climate, the early Paleogene period (~65-34 mya), at the start of the Cenozoic Era, had one of the most Eden like climates of the Phanerozoic Eon. As the Cenozoic progressed a cooling trend set in leading up to the formation of permanent ice caps and the Pleistocene Ice Age we are still experiencing. But before the world started to ice up our planet underwent one of the most dramatic bouts of global warming known to science—the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM. Recently, global warming activists have tried to liken human CO2 emissions to the cause of the PETM, 55 million years ago. Is it true, that our actions may trigger a sudden sharp rise in global temperature?

The mid-Cretaceous (~125-85 million years ago) and the early Paleogene are among the best known ancient “greenhouse” climate intervals—times when Earth's average temperature was significantly higher than they are today. During the Cenozoic (the last 65 million years) the global climate has cooled substantially, with a major cooling step at the Eocene-Oligocene transition (~34 mya), which included the development of the first glaciation at a continental scale in Antarctica. Another major cooling step occurred in middle Miocene (14 mya) and was a significant step in the development of the Antarctic continental glaciation.

The Eocene was much like the garden of Eden.

In addition, these intervals contain some of the most abrupt and transient climatic changes in the geologic record, including the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), the mid-Maastrichtian deepwater event (MME), and the early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE1a). For more information on these and other similar events see the detailed write up of Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 198 on Shatsky Rise. These sudden shifts in Earth's ecology and climate involved dramatically modified oceanic circulation patterns, profound changes in geochemical cycling, abrupt changes in marine life and the emergence of new animal species on land. The event from this time which is most well known is the PETM, also known as the Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum (LPTM), and it is the main subject of this posting.

The last 65 Ma (Cenozoic) from Zachos et al., 2001. PETM emphasis added.

According to the Deep Earth Academy's The PETM in Review, the PETM was likely triggered by the rapid emission of greenhouse gases, probably methane (CH4), which was rapidly oxidized to carbon dioxide (CO2). The result of this sudden increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases was global warming. The consequences of the PETM were significant in magnitude and truly global in scope:

  • Global warming; atmospheric temperatures warmed by 5°-9°C globally (6°-9°C warming of southern high latitude sea surface temperatures, 4°-5°C warming of the deep-sea, tropical sea surface temperatures, and Arctic Ocean, and ~5°C warming mid-latitude continental interiors).

  • Perhaps the most staggering result was that at times during the early Eocene warm episode the Arctic sea surface temperature soared to 24°C. The evidence suggests that the PETM marked possibly the warmest time at the North Pole for over 100 million years—certainly it has not been as warm since. Today's circum-polar ecosystems could not exist in such a climate regimen.

  • Ocean acidification (the carbonate compensation depth [CCD] rapidly shoaled by more than 2 km [<10,000 years] and recovered gradually (>100,000 years)).

  • Sudden onset of anoxic conditions in deep ocean waters..

  • Increased intensity of the hydrologic cycle and erosion rates (based in part on changes in clay mineral assemblages).

  • Major extinctions of benthic foraminifera in the deep-sea (30-50% of species). Turnover and evolution of calcareous plankton (calcareous nannofossils and planktic foraminifers).

  • Migration of terrestrial organisms to the high latitudes.

  • Turnover and evolution of terrestrial animals and plants. New mammal lineages first appear in the earliest Eocene, including the earliest horse in North America.

New critters appeared during the Eocene, like these primitive horses.

A number of different possible causes for the PETM have been proposed by scientists. These include massive continuous volcanic eruptions, world wide outbreak of forest fires, sudden reversals of circulating ocean currents and the release of deep sea deposits of methane held in methane-ice compounds known as clathrates.

Several investigators have suggested that early Cenozoic global warming would have altered deep-ocean circulation patterns by reducing the density of surface waters at high latitudes (Kennett and Shackleton, 1976; Wright and Miller, 1993; Zachos et al., 1993). This, in turn, would permit increased downwelling of highly saline but warmer waters in subtropical oceans. Such reversals or switches in circulation probably occurred suddenly rather than gradually. In fact, it has been suggested that a sudden change in intermediate-water circulation patterns may have occurred just prior to the PETM, possibly triggering the dissociation of clathrates (Karen L. Bice and Jochem Marotzke, 2002).

This conclusion is based on the sharp negative carbon isotope excursion (CIE; >2.5‰ in deep-sea sequences and 5-6‰ in terrestrial and shallow marine settings). The leading hypothesis for the trigger of the greenhouse gas emissions is the rapid dissociation of shallowly buried methane hydrate deposits along continental margins. One of several compelling arguments in favor of this hypothesis is that the magnitude of the CIE requires a highly depleted carbon source in order to affect the entire carbon reservoir very rapidly. An unrealistically large volume of a less depleted CO2 source, including volcanism or combustion of previously buried organic matter, would have been required to generate the CIE. Microbially generated methane (degradation of organic matter by methanogenic bacteria) has a δ13C of <-60‰. This highly depleted δ13C signature led to the hypothesis that microbially generated methane in hydrate deposits was the source of the CIE. The event may have occurred in pulses of carbon release (likely methane) over a period of 10,000 to 37,000 years, with individual pulses occurring very rapidly, likely 1,000 years or less.

When organic material decomposes it release methane, also known as swamp gas. Combine water and swamp gas under low temperatures and high pressures and the result can be a frozen lattice-like substance called methane hydrate. This crystalline combination of a natural gas and water (known technically as a clathrate) looks remarkably like ice but burns if lit with a flame. It is thought that huge amounts of methane hydrate lie under Earth's oceans and polar permafrost.

Estimates show that oceanic gas hydrates currently hold somewhere between 1,000 and 22,000 gigatons of carbon as methane, with most studies suggesting about 10,000 gigatons. Considering that our atmosphere contains about 700 gigatons of carbon, even the low mass estimates make gas hydrate a major component of the global carbon cycle.

Methane bubbles escaping from the sea floor.

The conclusion that CO2 was not the primary culprit in the PETM temperature spike and extinctions is further corroborated by research into other similar events. In a paper in the June 19, 2009, issue of Science, investigating the sudden loss of Late Triassic biodiversity in East Greenland, Jennifer C. McElwain, Peter J. Wagner and Stephen P. Hesselbo found a similar, supporting roll for CO2:

The abrupt plant diversity loss between 33 and 37 m is consistent with expected plant responses to a catastrophically rapid rather than gradual environmental change and argues against the currently favored extinction mechanisms invoking gradual CO2-induced global warming due to slow release of CO2 from the mantle associated with extrusion of basalt over an area of >10 million km2 (CAMP; Central Atlantic Magmatic Province)

There is evidence of other massive CO2 releases caused by volcanic activity that predate the PETM. None of these events seem to have triggered a similar spike in global temperatures or resulted in mass extinctions on their own. There was significant volcanic activity around the time of the PETM along the then embryonic plate boundary between Greenland and Europe, so volcanism could have been a significant contributor. Others find possible sources of CO2 in huge forest fires. The following bit of speculation comes from an article on the Geological Society of London web site by Jonathan Cowie:

One possible source of the CO2 could have been the combustion of plants and trees. But as the planet currently supports c. 1840 gigatonnes of dry terrestrial biomass then all would need to be burned to account for the excursion. How about a carbonaceous chondrite impacting the Earth? Alas, if one had, we would expect to see an iridium peak in early Eocene sediments. Three other possibilities remain. A major fossil fuel seam may have ignited. Marine methane hydrates may have destabilised, releasing a massive amount of methane. Or, both possibilities occurred.

To recap the possible cause of the massive carbon spike at the onset of the PETM here are the major proposed causes: massive volcanic eruptions along the plate boundary between Greenland and Europe, possibly causing magma interaction with basin-filling carbon-rich sedimentary rocks; a release of large volumes of methane from clathrate deposits, much of which would have made it into the atmosphere without being converted into CO2; and the combustion of plants and trees. A sudden shift in ocean thermohaline circulation could have helped warm the deep ocean enough to release methane from clathrates as well, though the configuration of those currents was significantly different than today because the disposition of land masses was much different then. While there is evidence for all three prospective causes the case for methane hydrate seems strongest because it explains the the rapid onset of anoxic conditions in the oceans and the spike in δ13C.

So what was the cause of the PETM? I like Douglas Erwin's explanation for the cause of the Permian-Triassic Extinction, the worst extinction event in Earth's history. He proposed the “Murder on the Orient Express” model. In other words, it was all these bad things—each by itself incapable of explaining all the evidence—happening at once. Volcanic activity could have helped warm the oceans to release methane and also caused the forest fires. You might ask, “how improbable is that?” But remember, complex life has been plentiful on Earth for more than half a billion years, which is plenty of time for any improbable coincidence to happen several times. What ever the actual chain of events that triggered the PETM it looks like CO2, even 2,000 gigatons of it, wouldn't have been released fast enough and couldn't have cause the sudden temperature spike on its own.

One final point comes from a paper titled “The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum in the Southern Ocean: Middle Bathyal Constraints from ODP Sites 689 and 738,” written by S. Schellenburg, j. Zachos and D. C. Kelly for the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in 2003. In it they state:

We hypothesize that these patterns reflect carbonate saturation profile changes in response to pulsed pCO2 increases from distinct methane releases. Specifically, given that wt% carbonate values remain suppressed at Site 690, we interpret the "double-dip" pattern at Sites 689 and 738 as two distinct lysocline shoalings to at least middle-bathyal depths. If true, current PETM models may underestimate the magnitude of carbonate undersaturation, and thereby the methane volume released, during the PETM.

This hints that much larger volumes of methane were released than the normal estimated amounts. Estimates all tend to be in the range of 1,200 – 5,000 gigatons of carbon with 2,000 gigatons often cited and at least one estimate as high as 10,000 gigatons. So could human GHG emissions cause an event similar to the PETM? Let's do some "back of the envelope" calculations and see.

Humans are currently emitting around 4 Gt of carbon a year that doesn't get reabsorbed by the carbon cycle. To reach the nominal figure of 2,000 Gt of carbon will take 500 years at this rate, which in geologic terms is very rapid. Ignoring an improbable future in which we will continue to emit as much or more carbon as we do today for five more centuries, it should be obvious that we have some time to deal with the problem before things get out of hand. Aside from that, the 500 year period seems to be a good fit for the carbon “pulses” that occurred at the start of the PETM. Call this estimate the naive lower bound. But remember, to trigger the PETM scientists have concluded that much of the carbon was released as methane, not CO2.

Let us suppose that half of the carbon was released as CH4 making the mix 1,000 Gt of carbon dioxide and 1,000 Gt of methane. Using the IPCC's Global Warming Potential (GWP) for methane in a 500 year time frame, which is 7 times the potency of CO2, we find the effective carbon dioxide level is 8,000 Gt CO2e. This level of human emissions would take mankind 2,000 years at our current rate. Moreover, the estimated fossil fuel carbon sink is only 6,000 Gt, so reaching the required total would mean finding some other source of carbon based fuels—perhaps ocean floor methane hydrates (nice bit of irony there, eh). Let's call this result the probable lower bound given what we know from the scientific evidence.

Finally, lets do an upper bound estimate on our ability to cause a PETM type event. Using the high end estimate of 10,000 Gt of carbon and keeping half of the emissions in methane we get an new total of 40,000 Gt CO2e. At the current emissions rate this would take us 10,000 years! I see no way that this is remotely plausible given the limited amount of fossil fuel reserves and the march of technological progress, but that's what upper bounds are for.

To restate the question, could Human CO2 emissions cause another PETM? The best answer I can give is not bloody likely. There are those who will yammer on about tipping points, but that moves from informed speculation to flat out guess work. No one knows what tipping points exists (if any) or what conditions are necessary to make them trip (see Tiptoeing Through The Tipping Points for a discussion of tipping points). Based on the best scientific knowledge available there is little danger of mankind's puny CO2 emissions triggering another PETM, no matter what the alarmists say.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

"Estimates all tend to be in

"Estimates all tend to be in the range of 1,200 – 5,000 gigatons of carbon with 2,000 gigatons often cited and at least one estimate as high as 10,000 gigatons. So could human GHG emissions cause an event similar to the PETM? Let's do some "back of the envelope" calculations and see.

Humans are currently emitting around 4 Gt of carbon a year that doesn't get reabsorbed by the carbon cycle. To reach the nominal figure of 2,000 Gt of carbon will take 500 years at this rate..."

It's the percentage increase in CO2 and/or methane that matters, not the absolute amount.

If the atmosphere has 1000ppm CO2 a 2000 Gt emission might double that. But if the atmosphere has 300ppm CO2, you'd only need a 600 Gt emission to have the same effect. Or something like that.

The reason that's important is because the Eocene had a lot more carbon in the atmosphere than today.


The difference between absolute quantities and percentage change is important. And feedbacks could well have a lot to do with how much carbon ends up in the atmosphere as a result of 4+ Gt of annual accumulation. The reality also remains that as far as we can tell, both the carbon accumulation and the temperature changes back then (an already warmer climate) were significantly slower than what looks to be on the horizon today.

you are absolutely right! it

you are absolutely right! it won't happen in my opinion as well

New Study Agrees, CO2 Didn't Cause the PETM

A new study co-authored by Rice University Oceanographer Gerald Dickens found that climate models explain only about half of the heating that occurred during the PETM. "In a nutshell, theoretical models cannot explain what we observe in the geological record," said Dickens, "There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models."

Doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide is an oft-talked-about threshold, and today's climate models include accepted values for the climate's sensitivity to doubling. Using these accepted values and the PETM carbon data, Dickens and co-authors Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawaii and James Zachos of the University of California-Santa Cruz determined that the models could only explain about half of the warming that Earth experienced 55 million years ago.

The conclusion, Dickens said, is that something other than carbon dioxide caused much of the heating during the PETM. "Some feedback loop or other processes that aren't accounted for in these models—the same ones used by the IPCC for current best estimates of 21st Century warming—caused a substantial portion of the warming that occurred during the PETM."

For more details on the study, which appears in Nature Geoscience, see the review on the Rice website.