Earth’s environment in the Palaeocene: A literature review

Department of Earth Sciences, University of Durham 2014

1. Introduction
The Palaeocene epoch follows the termination of the Upper Cretaceous and precedes the
Eocene epoch, occupying a timescale from approximately 66-56Ma before present. The
Palaeocene also marks the first, or lower most division, of the Paleogene epoch. The
boundary between the Cretaceous and the Palaeocene (K-Pg) is marked clearly in the fossil
record, and is also palpable by anomalously high iridium levels and ejecta deposits. This
dramatic change in the paleorecord coincides with the mass extinction event at the end of the
Cretaceous. Climatic and environemtnal changes during the Palaeocene are often indicated by
the use of stable isotopes in sediment sections and also data from foraminifera and fossilised
vegetation. Climate change inferred from the above constraints, generally suggest a relatively
cooler early Palaeocene, and warming towards the late Palaeocene. The end of the Palaeocene
is dominated by significant and extreme rises in global temperature and oceanic carbon levels,
and is often termed the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. This short time period has
been the centre of intense scientific research due to its similarity to modern day global
warming, and could be discussed to great length in its own right, and although trends of
isotopic data, environment and climate are explored up to Eocene boundary, a distinct treatise
on the PETM is not within the limits of this review.
The following literature review aims to summarise the literature of the Paleaocene epoch,
focusing on earth’s system and climate using published data and interpretations. As such,
interpretations made by the author are only in an evaluative sense, to ‘critique’ the literature
to an extent. This short review aims to discuss the change in Earth’s processes during the
Paleocne and thus, the literature is discussed by order of these different environmental
systems. A more general discussion of climatic and environmental changes over the whole
epoch, and the potential uncertainties of investigating paleoclimate finalise the review, with
an ending note on the future avenues of research into Palaeocene climate and systems.

2. Ocean Circulation
During the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary the large Pangean land mass continued to break
up, resulting in new ocean gateways and currents. By the start of the Palaeocene large
equator-pole currents were circulating in the Pacific (Frakes et al 1992) and a more limited
circulation was apparent in the South Atlantic. However, a still relatively warm climate over
the Cretaceous-Palaeocene boundary is suggested to have resulted in warm ‘sluggish’
circulation (Frakes et al 1992; Kennett & Stott 1990, 1991; Quillévéré et al 2002). Since
high-latitude oceans were relatively warm, the equator-to-pole temperature gradient was low,
Figure 1. Black line is the five-point moving average of 1209 Palaeocene benthic foraminiferal data from
ODP site 1209, a complete high-resolution benthic stable !
O and !
C isotope record for the central
Pacific (Westerhold et al 2011). Other points shown are the composite multisite deep-sea benthic
foraminiferal stable isotope data. NAIP shows the primary component stages of the North Atlantic Igneous
Province. Stages of the Deccan Trap igneous province are also shown at the K-Pg boundary. To some
extent, the phases of Deccan eruptions support hypothesis by Kellar (2005) that an extinction event at the K-
Pg boundary is unrelated to the Chicxulub impact and that Iridium anomalies, climate and environmental
change are associated with Deccan traps volcanism. Several small ‘hypothermals’ are inferred by the data
(purple lines) but these are yet to be resolved to represent global climate change. During high !
C periods
the climate cooled, whilst during low !
C periods the climate warmed.
resulting in weak atmospheric and ocean circulation. Low water turnover and oceanic mixing
in this period was compounded by the K-Pg extinction event, which caused “Strangelove”
conditions (Hsu 1985). This is recorded by several studies as a sudden loss of the ocean’s
carbon-isotope gradient (Charisi & Schmitz 1994; Frakes et al 1992; Kennett & Stott 1990;
Kump 1991; Quillévéré et al 2002; Fig.1), and widespread isotopic homogeneity. It has been
suggested that this homogeneity is caused by the nearly complete cessation of primary
production in the surface ocean, brought about by a drop in the net export of organic carbon
from the surface ocean to the deep ocean. Thus, an isotopically homogeneous ocean indicates
a deceleration of ocean mixing (Kump 1991, and references therein).
During the late Palaeocene hydrothermal activity (Vogt, 1979) and ocean mixing has been
suggested to increase. (Miller et al 1987; Kennett & Stott 1990, 1991) have suggested that
oceanic mixing, brought about by major tectonic reorganization towards the end of the
Palaeocene, caused warm saline and oxygen-deficient deep water to mix with cold, nutrient-
depleted deep waters at higher latitudes, thus shifting the locus of ongoing deep water
formation from cold to warm waters, causing deep ocean water temperatures to rise
dramatically. This is apparent from deep-sea benthic foraminifera collected at Cape Basin
(Miller et al 1987). !
O data suggests bottom water warming of approximately 6°C, and an
inferred change in water supply to that from an Antarctic source, causes or at least
contributes, to the demise of the Palaeocene deep-sea fauna, a commonly measured major
biotic crisis (Miller et al 1987; Kennett & Stott 1990, 1991; Vogt 1979), and interpret these
observations as an important climatic transition (Fig.1). Vogt (1979) also proposes that
increased hydrothermal activity and volcanogenic upwelling of anoxic, nutrient rich water
during this time also contributed to fauna extinction. During the late Palaeocene at high
temperature maxima, the lack of cooled near surface waters emanating from polar regions
allowed penetration of warmed boundary currents to higher latitudes (Boersma & Permoli-
Silva 1983). It is likely that changes in ocean circulation were concurrent, and cooperative
with, global atmospheric and oceanic temperature change.

3. Ocean temperatures
The latitudinal movement of foraminifera can determine intervals of warming and cooling in
the oceans. In cooler times warmth-loving foraminifera are restricted to lower latitudes (about
25°). However, during the late Palaeocene, the same foraminifera migrated into much higher
latitudes of up to about 55°, suggesting that ocean waters warmed at this time (Boersma &
Permoli-Silva 1983). (Shackleton et al 1986) suggest that ocean bottom waters stayed
relatively constant throughout the Palaeocene, between 10 and 12°C, which is in contrast to
observations made by Miller et al (1987) at Cape Basin, who advocate that ocean bottom
waters warmed by 6°C. However, Miller et al (1987) admit that this 6°C warming may not
have reached its maximum during the Palaeocene. Records of ice-rafted deposits are few and
far between during the whole of the Palaeocene. However, a study by Dallan (1977) observed
Figure 2. Integrated stratigraphy and geochemistry across the K-Pg boundary in the El Kef GSSP section
(see Schulte et al 2010, and references therein). All data shows a very sudden ‘jump’ at the K-Pg
boundary, strongly supporting an impact event like that hypothesised for the Chicxulub crater. Taken
from Schulte et al (2010).
Palaeocene clasts of fine-grained shales on Spisbergen (Arctic Norway), and interpreted them
as ice-raft deposits. It has been suggested that, following the K-Pg extinction event, slightly
cooler temperatures during the early Palaeocene may have accommodated seasonal ice.
The literature still debates as to whether there was a gradual disappearance of Cretaceous
biotas (Frakes et al 1992; Kauffman 1984; Officer et al 1987; Keller 2005) or that sudden
catastrophic extinction in oceans and on land occurred due to a meteorite impact event
(Barnosky et al 2011; Hsu 1986; Schulte et al 2010). In the oceans, the surface waters seem to
have been the most affected, since planktonic microbiotas declined markedly whereas benthic
biotas were hardly changed (Frakes et al 1992, and references therein).

4. Cretaceous-Palaeocene extinction event
Since this topic dominates a large proportion of the literature reviewed, and the debate
continues as to the cause of the K-Pg extinction, it is discussed explicitly in this section. The
definition of the K-Pg boundary, as described by several studies (Barnosky et al 2011;
Schulte et al 2010), is that the stratigraphy at the base of the Danian is characterised by a dark
clay bed which shows the coincidence of the mass extinction of marine plankton, ecological
disruption at the sea floor, a drop in carbonate content, and a perturbation of the global carbon
cycle (at the level of hypothesised impact, Fig.2). This perturbation is characterised by
anomalously high Iridium levels, ejecta spherules and Ni-rich spinel. Several studies (Alvarez
et al 1984; Barnosky et al 2011; Hsu 1986; Schulte et al 2010) have attributed the timing,
palaeontology and petrology of this distinctive boundary to a potential meteoroid impact at
the Chicxulub crater, near modern day Mexico. The petrography, composition and age of the
ejecta material present in many of the K-Pg boundary localities match the suite of target rocks
within the Chicxulub crater (Schulte et al 2010).
Conversely, some studies (Dingus 1984, Dingus et al 2000; Kauffman 1984) suggest that
complete stratiagraphic records of mass extinctions of this duration are rare. This
complication is compounded by a period of falling eustatic sea level during mass extinction,
thus enhancing the non-deposition of, restriction of, and erosion of epicontinental and
continental marginal marine sections (Kauffman 1984). With these considerations in mind,
further re-examination of the best stratiagraphic sections by Alvarez & Kauffman (1984)
suggest that terminal-Cretaceous extinction occurred on two timescales. Firstly,
paleontological data showed gradual declines in diversity of many invertebrate groups over a
period of 1-10Myr after the hypothesised boundary impact. Second, that simultaneously to
this gradual decline, four groups (ammonites, cheilostomate beyozoans, brachiopods and
bivalves) were affected by sudden truncations precisely after the impact time. Thus, Alvarez
et al 1984 suggest that some animals declined slowly, unreleated to impact, and that others
declined quickly, synchronously to the iridium anomaly deposits, and were probably caused
by impact.
More recent research by Keller (2005) suggests that K-Pg extinction and other biotic effects
were completely unrelated to the Chicxulub impact event, arguing that Planktic foraminifera
extinction, which suffered the most dramatic decline at the K-Pg boundary, declined slowly
rather than truncating rapidly as would be expected if related to the Chicxulub impact. The
research also draws on previous impact craters of similar size. Keller (2005) argues that no
significant biotic or environmental effects can observed as a result of past impacts and puts
forward an alternative theory for K-Pg mass extinction, which calls for a re-evaluation of the
Chicxulub impact theory. Keller explains the enhanced Iriduium deposits as a result of
volcanism, arguing that recent data suggests that the main phase (80%) of Deccan eruptions
may have been very rapid, and would have ended at the Cretaceous-Palaeocene boundary
(Westerhold 2012, Fig.1). The long-term trend in benthic isotopes found by Westerhold et al
(2012) suggests that volcanic CO
input is closely coupled to deep-sea warming. The slow
rise in temperature, after very-dramatic short-term cooling on the Cretaceous-Palaeocene
boundary, in the early Palaeocene may indicate increased input of CO
associated with wide
scale eruptions and de-gassing from large igneous provinces such as Deccan.

5. Organic-rich sediments
There is a significant drop of up to 3‰ recorded in the !
C carbon isotope values at the K-Pg
boundary (Figs.1 & 2). As alluded to in the previous section, this drop is mainly recorded in
planktonic samples and there is no corresponding drop in benthic isotopes (Frakes et al 1990)
further indicating, as reviewed in section 2, that the vertical carbon gradient in the early
Palaeocene was eradicated. The K-Pg extinction event is thought by most authors, to at least
some extent, to have caused a lowering in ocean productivity in the early Palaeocene. Hsu &
McKenzie (1985) suggest that an impact event, and the associated “dark” period due to clouds
of ejecta, brought about the decline of oceanic productivity and lead to a sterile dead ocean,
named the ‘Strangelove’ ocean. Continued studies by Arthur et al (1987) have observed this
low productivity to have lasted for as long as 1.5Myr, which they argue is a very long time for
the environment to be effected by a single impact event. This may support the argument of a
two stranded extinction as proposed by Alvarez et al (1984). During the early Palaeocene, a
decline in oceanic productivity would have caused an increase in atmospheric CO
resulting in climate warming (Fig.1). This may have been compounded by volcanic eruptions
(Kellar 2005, Fig.1). A shift in !
O isotopes from Cape Basin, South Atlantic (Miller et al
1987) and accompanying data from deep-sea profiles in the Pacific (Westerhold et al 2011,
Fig.1) indicate a short period of cooling at the K-Pg boundary (Fig.1) and then subsequent
steady warming during much of the early Palaeocene.
After a significant drop in !
C at the K-Pg boundary (Figs. 1 & 2), !
C isotopes rose steadily
to a large peak during the Late Palaeocene (Boersma et al 1979; Frakes et al 1990). !
values in the late Palaeocene reached their highest levels for the entire Cenozoic (Charisi &
Schmitz 1994), with an increase in !
C from around 1‰, in the early Palaeocene to
approximately 3.5‰ at around 60Ma (Shackleton 1986; Stott & Kennett 1989, 1990). This
maximum has been attributed to an amplified oxygen minimum zone, emanating from
enhanced biological productivity and associated with elevated organic-carbon accumulation
rates. This is supported by observations that both planktonic and benthich !
C values
increased to the same extent, and thus indicating that organic carbon
C was revoked from
the ocean system through burial as organic rich shale or coals. Studies linking !
C, !
O and
ocean temperature (Shackleton 1986; Stott & Kennet 1990, 1991; Westerhold et al 2011)
indicate that the oceans cooled considerably during high !
C periods (early-late Palaeocene)
and warmed during low !
C periods (early Palaeocene), (Fig.1).
Periodic slow excursions superimposed on the long-term trend of !
C and !
O isotopes
show swings of short-term 100kyr and 405kyr cycles (Charisi & Schmitz 1994; Westerhold et
al 2011) indicating the role of orbital forcing as the pace maker for paleoclimatic variability
on Milankovitch time scales. A dominant negative of both !
C and !
O isotopes, on the
100kyr period (Fig.1), characterizes the end of Palaeocene. This negative in the isotope record
coincides with the largest mass extinction event of deep-water benthic organisms during the
last 90Myr (Kennet & Stott 1991; Pak & Miller 1992). Earlier studies (Brass et al 1982)
emphasized the physical plausibility of deep-ocean circulation in the late Palaeocene to be
controlled by salinity, rather than temperature differences. However, as discussed in section 1,
a suggested rise of !
C and !
O in deep water sections, corresponding to deep-water oceanic
warming by as much of 6°C, indicate that major climatic and tectonic change is thought to
have brought about the decline of deep-water benthic organisms. Climatic change and
warming during the Late Palaeocene would also agree with reconstructed paleoclimate from
the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary, which experienced a large thermal maximum (PETM).
6. Land temperatures
The Cretaceous-Palaeocene transition was a period of vegetational change, characterised by
the appearance of the flowering plants and their increasing dominance in the vegetation
(Frakes et al 1990). In the early Palaeocene floral transition is suggested in some localities,
although the degree of this change is highly variable and the ability to resolve this change as
an alteration in global climate is yet to be achieved. A theorised impact event, if on land, is
thought to have caused large scale fallout of dust and ejecta that would have blocked out the
sun (Schulte et al 2001), and thus caused a decrease in photosynthesis and brought about
rapid climate cooling. A study by Wolbach et al (1998) suggests that soot particles found at
some localities at the K-Pg boundary were from large-scale forest fires that would have
destroyed vegetation. However, Cope and Chaloner (1980) suggest that such events were
common throughout the Cretaceous and that soot layers can be observed in earlier non-marine
sediments. As such, there does not appear to be any consistent effects of the hypothesised
meteroid impact on terrestial vegetation (Frakes et al 1990, and references therein). An
alternative stufy by Tschudy et al (1984) suggests that an increase in the percentage of fern
spores above the K-Pg boundary at several localities can be interpreted as a sequence of re-
colonization of vegetation in response to a dramatic event. These observations could implicate
an impact event, or could be equally attributed to a sudden onset of volcanic activity at the K-
Pg boundary as proposed by Keller (2005).
Wolfe & Upchurch (1986) suggest that during the early Pleoceene, in reaction to an impact
event, evergreen trees were more affected than their deciduous counterparts, which is implicit
of greater seasonal extremes during the Early Palaeocene. Results from terrestrial sediments
also suggest that the impact did not cause serious temperature changes on land but instead
caused a marked increase in precipitation. Rainforest vegetation became established in North
America in the early Palaeocene (Wolfe & Upchurch 1986). Global vegetation zones during
the Palaeocene seem to accommodate mostly rainforest type vegetation, with a wide
equatorial belt of tropical rainforest extending to latitudes of about 50° (Frakes et al 1990).
Paratropical, and broad leave evergreen vegetation were only accommodated in narrow bands
near to the poles. These vegetation zones remained largely similar for much of the
Palaeocene. Gradually warming oceanic temperatures, the opening up of sea gateways,
leading to greater atmospheric circulation and more rainfall, fuelled rainforest sustainability.

7. Conclusions
The early Palaeocene was characterised by a global environmental response to the K-Pg
extinction event. There is still debate as to whether extinction of cretaceous biotas occurred
suddenly, indicating an extraterrestrial impact, or whether extinctions occurred more
gradually, suggesting an alternative extinction mechanism. This perhaps highlights a common
ambiguity of reconstructing paleoenvironments, in that proxies are often of too lower
resolution, or have a locality spacing that is too far spread, to provide a constraint on the
environment over short timescales. However, proxies over longer time scales can provide a
constraint on environmental change within the limits of justifiable uncertainty. Oxygen and
carbon isotope records suggest a relatively cooler environment, at the K-Pg boundary, related
to the extinction event, with generally gradual increasing temperatures towards the Late
Palaeocene (Fig.1). Smaller transient warming events have been identified for the Palaeocene
epoch (Fig.1), but the exact character of these “events” is variable between different locations
and whether the warming events are truly reflective of global climate change is yet to
resolved (Westerhold et al 2011). Terrestrial environments adapted to initial changes at the K-
Pg boundary with a general increase in precipitation, and wide spread rainforests remained for
much of the Palaeocene. During the late Palaeocene, a shift in deep-ocean water sources from
cold to warm areas is suggested to have caused deep-ocean temperatures to rise. The
dominant decrease in !
C and !
O isotopes at this time coincides with the mass extinction of
deep-water benthic organisms. It is probable that the discussed changes in oceanic,
atmospheric and terrestrial environments were brought about by continued tectonic changes,
and were influenced to some extent, by the volcanic degassing of igneous provinces
throughout the Palaeocene.
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