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Climate that changed the world 56 Million Years Ago.

Climate that changed the world 56 Million Years Ago.

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The cause was a massive and geologically sudden release of carbon. Just how much carbon was injected into the atmosphere during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, as scientists now call the fever period, is uncertain.
The cause was a massive and geologically sudden release of carbon. Just how much carbon was injected into the atmosphere during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, as scientists now call the fever period, is uncertain.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Dr. Nitish Priyadarshi on Sep 24, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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02/06/2013

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Climate which changed the world 56 million years ago.
Are we heading towards the same disaster?ByDr. Nitish Priyadarshi
The Eocene was much like the Garden of Eden.
56 million years ago a mysterious surge of carbon into the atmosphere sent globaltemperatures soaring. In a geologic eyeblink life was forever changed.Climate change is changing the world. Either it is in the form of temperature rise or in theform of severe floods. Many times question arises in my mind whether this climate changeis the out come of present human activities on the earth or it has happened in earlygeological ages too. Answer is “yes” climate change has occurred several times from the beginning of the earth formation. Evidences are preserved in from of rocks, sediments, andfossils.
 
Studying the records of past climate change will fill you like reading thriller novel in whichevery chapter is full of suspense and thrill. Every chapter of this novel denotes differentgeological periods with different stories of climate change.My article is about the chapter which covers the story of climatic conditions around 56million years ago.The Atlantic Ocean had not fully opened, and animals, including perhaps our primateancestors, could walk from Asia through Europe and across Greenland to North America.They wouldn’t have encountered a speck of ice; even before the events we’re talking about,earth was already much warmer than it is today. But as the Paleocene epoch gave way tothe Eocene, it was about to get much warmer still-rapidly, radically warmer.The cause was a massive and geologically sudden release of carbon. Just how much carbonwas injected into the atmosphere during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, as scientists now call the fever period, is uncertain. But they estimate it wasroughly that amount that would be injected today if human beings burned through all theearth’s reserves of coal, oil and natural gas. The PETM lasted more than 150,000 years,until the excess carbon was reabsorbed. It brought on drought, floods, insect plagues, and afew extinctions. Life on earth survived-indeed, it prospered- but it was drastically different.Climate zones shifted toward the poles, on land and at sea, forcing plants and animals tomigrate, adapt or die. Some of the deepest realms of the ocean became acidified andoxygen-starved, killing off many of the organisms living there. It took nearly 200,000 yearsfor the earth’s natural buffers to bring the fever down.
 
Today the evolutionaryconsequences of that distant carbon spike are all around us; in fact they include us. Nowwe ourselves are repeating the experiment.The PETM is significant because it marks the beginning of a 20+ million year warmingtrend that takes place in the Eocene, and continues on through the Oligocene. That isn't tosay that the PETM lasted for 20+ million years, and was responsible for the warm balmyweather in the Eocene, but it did have an effect on the creatures living at the time,especially microscopic ocean organisms.30-40% of foraminifera species went extinct during this time. Foraminifera are microscopic plankton-like organisms that feed much of the rest of the food chain.According to a recent study led by Goethe University and the Biodiversity and ClimateResearch Centre (BIK-F) in Frankfurt, Antarctica had a much warmer climate during theEocence Epoch (56-34 million years ago), enough to support subtropical flora and fauna.Published in Nature, the study looked at sediment from cores dating back between 55 and46 million years ago drilled off the coast of Antarctica near Wilkes Land (part of Antarctica located south of Australia) in 2010 as part of the Integrated Ocean DrillingProgramme.Scientists believe that global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations weresignificantly higher (as much as 1,000 parts per billion) than present (which are just under 
 
400 parts per billion). They don’t yet know what caused the major surge in CO2 levels atthe start of the Eocene and exactly why they began to abate.Hundreds of scientific papers have been published on the PETM, but because of thescarcity of paleo-data from this time, there has been no clear scientific agreement over whatinitiated this warming, or where all the CO2 came from.Where did all the carbon come from? We know the source of the excess carbon now pouring into the atmosphere: us. But there were no humans around 56 million years ago, nocars no power plants. Many sources have been suggested for PETM carbon spike, andgiven the amount of carbon, it likely came from more than one. At the end of thePaleocene, Europe and Greenland were pulling apart and opening the North Atlantic,resulting in massive volcanic eruptions that could have cooked carbon dioxide out of organic sediments on the seafloor. Wildfires might have burned through Paleocene peatdeposits, although so far soot from such fires has not turned up in sediment cores. A giantcomet smashing into carbonate rocks also could have released a lot of carbon very quickly, but as yet there is no direct evidence of such an impact.The oldest and still the most popular hypothesis is that much of the carbon came from largedeposits of methane hydrate, a peculiar, ice like compound that consists of water moleculesforming a cage around a single molecule of methane. Hydrates are stable only in a narrow band of cold temperatures and high pressures; large deposits of them are found today under the Artic tundra and under the sea floor, on the slopes that link the continental shelves tothe deep abyssal plains. At the PETM an initial warming from somewhere –perhaps thevolcanoes, perhaps slight fluctuations in Earth’s orbit that exposed parts of it to moresunlight- might have melted hydrates and allowed methane molecules to slip from their cages and bubble into the atmosphere.Many of the other climate feedbacks that we either already observe today or expect toexperience probably took place during the PETM warming, as well. Severe drought wouldhave led to increased wildfires, injecting more carbon into the atmosphere. Some researchshows that permafrost on a then glacier-free Antarctica thawed, which would have alsoreleased carbon dioxide and methane. Another interesting source of carbon that somescientists hypothesize is the burning of peat and coal seams. Peat is decayed vegetation andhas a very high carbon content. Peat, which is found in the soil beneath the surface, can beignited by something like a wildfire and continue to smolder for as long as centuries. Coalseams can be ignited in a similar way, and burn for decades to centuries, releasing hugeamounts of carbon into the atmosphere.The consequences of the PETM were significant in magnitude and truly global in scope:1. Global warming; atmospheric temperatures warmed by 5°-9°C globally (6°-9°Cwarming 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-latitudecontinental interiors).

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