The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM; 55.8 million years ago), was a short-lived (~ 200,000 years) global warming event attributed to a rapid rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It was suggested that this warming was initiated by the melting of methane hydrates on the seafloor and permafrost at high latitudes. During the PETM, around 5 billion tons of CO2 was released into the atmosphere per year, and temperatures increased by 5 – 9°C. This event was accompanied by other large-scale changes in the climate system, for example, the patterns of atmospheric circulation, vapor transport, precipitation, intermediate and deep-sea circulation and a rise in global sea level.
The rapid warming at the beginning of the Eocene has been inferred from the widespread distribution of dinoflagellate cysts. One taxon in particularly, Apectodinium, spans the entire carbon isotope excursion (CIE) of the PETM. The distribution of Apectodinium is linked to high temperatures and increased food availability.
The most disruptive impact during the PETM was likely the exceptional ocean acidification and the rise of the calcite dissolution depth, affecting marine organisms with calcareous shells (Zachos et al., 2005). When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it produce carbonic acid. The carbonic acid dissociates in the water releasing hydrogen ions and bicarbonate. The formation of bicarbonate then removes carbonate ions from the water, making them less available for use by organisms.
The PETM onset is also marked by the largest deep-sea mass extinction among calcareous benthic foraminifera (including calcareous agglutinated taxa) in the last 93 million years. Similarly, planktonic foraminifera communities at low and high latitudes show reductions in diversity, while larger foraminifera are the most common constituents of late Paleocene–early Eocene carbonate platforms.
The response of most marine invertebrates (mollusks, echinoderms, brachiopods) to paleoclimatic change during the PETM is poorly documented.
The PETM is also associated with dramatic changes among the calcareous plankton,characterized by the appearance of transient nanoplankton taxa of heavily calcified forms of Rhomboaster spp., Discoaster araneus, and D. anartios as well as Coccolithus bownii, a more delicate form.
The combination of global warming and the release of large amounts of carbon to the ocean-atmosphere system during the PETM has encouraged analogies to be drawn with modern anthropogenic climate change. The current rate of the anthropogenic carbon input is probably greater than during the PETM, causing a more severe decline in ocean pH and saturation state. Also the biotic consequences of the PETM were fairly minor, while the current rate of species extinction is already 100–1000 times higher than would be considered natural. This underlines the urgency for immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.
Maria Rose Petrizzo, The onset of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) at Sites 1209 and 1210 (Shatsky Rise, Pacific Ocean) as recorded by planktonic foraminifera, Marine Micropaleontology, Volume 63, Issues 3–4, 13 June 2007, Pages 187-200
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