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AGU journal highlights -- June 23, 2011
Date:6/23/2011

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The Paleocene epoch (approximately 66 to 56 million years ago) was sandwiched between sudden climate shifts and mass extinctions. The boundary between the end of the Paleocene and the beginning of the Eocene (P-E boundary) saw the global average temperature soar by 5Celsius (9 Fahrenheit) over a few thousand years, leading to a pronounced reorganization of both terrestrial and oceanic plant and animal communities. The P-E boundary warming was triggered by an influx of atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the influx's ultimate trigger is still being debated. Other prominent warming events within the Paleogene (~66 to 23 million years ago), the broad time span that encompasses the Paleocene and Eocene, have been linked to regularly recurring changes in the eccentricity of the Earth's orbit that take place on 100,000- and 405,000-year cycles. Proponents of this view suggest that an alignment of the two cycles could lead to the warming of deep ocean waters, melting frozen methane and triggering an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, some studies have suggested that the P-E boundary warming was instead the product of geological processes, where carbon-rich rocks were baked by injected magma, which eventually liberated the carbon to the atmosphere. Deciding between proposed explanations for the cause of the P-E warming, whether they are astronomical or geological, depends on accurately pinning the event in time.

One of the most accurate techniques available, uranium-lead (U-Pb) radioactive isotope dating, relies on finding the right kind of mineralsin this case, zircon encased in ancient volcanic ashin the right sedimentary layer. Drawing from an outcrop in Spitsbergen, the western island of the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, Charles et al. performed U-Pb dating of zircon tied to the P-E boundary. The analysis puts the date of the powerful warming between 55.728 and 55.964 million years ago. According to the authors' chronology, the warming
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Contact: Peter Weiss
pweiss@agu.org
202-777-7507
American Geophysical Union
Source:Eurekalert

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