The hyperthermals of the geological record

During the last 540 million years five mass extinction events shaped the history of the Earth. Those events were related to extreme climatic changes. The geological records show that large and rapid global warming events occurred repeatedly during the course of Earth history.
Our planet’s climate has oscillated between two basic states: the “Icehouse”, and the “Greenhouse”, and superimposed on this icehouse–greenhouse climate cycling, there are a number of geologically abrupt events known as hyperthermals, when atmospheric CO2 concentrations may rise above 16 times (4,800 ppmv). Although each hyperthermal is unique, they are consequence from the release of anomalously large inputs of CO2 into the atmosphere and are relatively short-lived (with the exception of the Permian–Triassic boundary).

A summary of the most significant hyperthermals in the last 300 Myr. From Foster et. al., 2018.

The emplacement of large igneous provinces (LIPs) is commonly associated with hyperthermals, for example, the Siberian Traps at the P–T boundary. The CO2 emissions caused global warming. The SO2 emissions on mixing with water vapour in the atmosphere, caused acid rain, which in turn killed land plants and caused soil erosion. Warmer oceans melted frozen methane located in marine sediments which pushed the global temperatures to higher levels. Additionally, the increased continental weathering induced by acid rain and global warming led to increased marine productivity and eutrophication, and so oceanic anoxia, and marine mass extinctions.

The hyperthermal at the P–T boundary was associated with the most severe terrestrial and oceanic mass extinction of the last 541 Myr, where 96% of species became extinct. It comprises two killing events, one at the end of the Permian (EPME) and a second at the beginning of the Triassic, separated by 60000 years. In terms of carbon isotope excursion, the P–T boundary hyperthermal and the PETM share many similarities, but the warming after the P-T boundary was more extreme and extended for longer than PETM.

Flow chart summarizing proposed cause-and-effect relationships during the end-Permian extinction (From Bond and Wignall, 2014)

The End-Triassic Extinction is probably the least understood of the big five. It has been linked to the eruption of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), a large igneous province emplaced during the initial rifting of Pangea. Most mammal-like reptiles and large amphibians disappeared, as well as early dinosaur groups. In the oceans, this event eliminated conodonts and nearly annihilated corals, ammonites, brachiopods and bivalves. In the Southern Hemisphere, the vegetation turnover consisted in the replacement to Alisporites (corystosperm)-dominated assemblage to a Classopollis (cheirolepidiacean)-dominated one.

The early Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE; ∼183 mya) in the Jurassic Period is considered as one of the most severe of the Mesozoic era. The T-OAE is thought to have been caused by increased atmospheric CO2 triggered by Karoo–Ferrar volcanism. Results from the Paris Bassin indicates that the increasing greenhouse conditions may have caused acidification in the oceans, hampering carbonate bio-mineralisation, and provoking a dramatical loss in the CO2 storage capacity of the oceans.

Tentative changes in mid-latitude vegetation patterns during OAE2. (a) Araucariaceae, (b) other conifers incl. Cheirolepidiaceae, (c) Cupressaceae, (d) angiosperms incl. Normapolles-producing forms, (e) ferns. From Heimhofer et al., 2018.

The early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE1a, 120 Ma) represents a geologically brief time interval characterized by rapid global warming, dramatic changes in ocean circulation including widespread oxygen deficiency, and profound changes in marine biotas. During the event, black shales were deposited in all the main ocean basins. It was also associated with the calcification crisis of the nannoconids, the most ubiquitous planktic calcifiers during the Early Cretaceous. Their near disappearance is one of the most significant events in the nannoplankton fossil record.

The mid-Cretaceous Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 (OAE2, 93 Ma) marks the onset of an extreme phase in ocean temperatures known as the “Cretaceous thermal maximum”. It has been postulated that the OAE2 was triggered by a massive magmatic episode.

Comparison of the effects of anthropogenic emissions (total of 5000 Pg C over 500 years) and PETM carbon release (3000 Pg C over 6 kyr) on the surface ocean saturation state of calcite. From Zeebe, 2013

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. But unlike other hyperthermals, the PETM is not associated with significant extinctions.

Anthropogenic climate change and ocean acidification resulting from the emission of vast quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gases pose a considerable threat to ecosystems and modern society. 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.

References:

Foster GL, Hull P, Lunt DJ, Zachos JC. (2018) Placing our current‘hyperthermal’ in the context of rapid climate change in our geological past. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 376: 20170086 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2017.0086

Benton MJ. (2018) Hyperthermal-driven mass extinctions: killing models during the Permian–Triassic mass extinction. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 376: 20170076. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2017.0076

Penn, J. L., Deutsch, C., Payne, J. L., & Sperling, E. A. (2018). Temperature-dependent hypoxia explains biogeography and severity of end-Permian marine mass extinction. Science, 362(6419), eaat1327. doi:10.1126/science.aat1327 

Ernst, R. E., & Youbi, N. (2017). How Large Igneous Provinces affect global climate, sometimes cause mass extinctions, and represent natural markers in the geological record. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 478, 30–52. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2017.03.014

Turgeon, S. C., & Creaser, R. A. (2008). Cretaceous oceanic anoxic event 2 triggered by a massive magmatic episode. Nature, 454(7202), 323–326. doi:10.1038/nature07076

Ulrich Heimhofer, Nina Wucherpfennig, Thierry Adatte, Stefan Schouten, Elke Schneebeli-Hermann, Silvia Gardin, Gerta Keller, Sarah Kentsch & Ariane Kujau (2018) Vegetation response to exceptional global warmth during Oceanic Anoxic Event 2, Nature Communications volume 9, Article number: 3832

Zeebe RE and Zachos JC. 2013 Long-term legacy ofmassive carbon input to the Earth system: Anthropocene versus Eocene. Phil Trans R Soc A 371: 20120006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2012.0006.

 

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Our once and future oceans

Earth is the only planet in our Solar System with high concentrations of gaseous diatomic oxygen. Simultaneously, this unique feature of Earth’s atmosphere has allowed the presence of an ozone layer that absorbed UV radiations. The progressive oxygenation of the atmosphere and oceans was sustained by an event of high organic carbon burial, called the Paleoproterozoic Lomagundi Event (ca. 2.3-2.1 billion years ago), which lasted well over 100 million years.

Oxygen is fundamental to life, and influences biogeochemical processes at their most fundamental level. But the oxygen content of Earth has varied greatly through time. In Earth history there have been relatively brief intervals when a very significant expansion of low-oxygen regions occurred throughout the world’s oceans. The discovery of black shales at many drill sites from the Atlantic, Indian, and the Pacific Ocean led to the recognition of widespread anoxic conditions in the global ocean spanning limited stratigraphic horizons. In 1976, S. O. Schlanger and H. C. Jenkyns termed these widespread depositional black shale intervals as “Oceanic Anoxic Events”. This was one of the greatest achievement of the DSDP (Deep Sea Drilling Project).

Corals one of the most vulnerable creatures in the ocean. Photo Credit: Katharina Fabricius/Australian Institute of Marine Science

Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. After the World War II, the impact of human activity on the global environment dramatically increased. Over the past 50 years, open ocean lost an estimated 2%, or 4.8 ±2.1 petamoles (77 billion metric tons), of its oxygen, and ocean oxygen minimum zones (OMZs) have expanded by an area about the size of the European Union. Deoxygenation is linked to other ocean stressors, including warming and acidification.

Ocean warming reduces the solubility of oxygen, and raises metabolic rates accelerating the rate of oxygen consumption. Warming also influence on thermal stratification and indirectly enhances salinity driven stratification through its effects on ice melt and precipitation. The increased stratification alters the mainly wind-driven circulation in the upper few hundred meters of the ocean and slows the deep overturning circulation. Intensified stratification may account for the remaining 85% of global ocean oxygen loss by reducing ventilation nd by affecting the supply of nutrients controlling production of organic matter and its subsequent sinking out of the surface ocean. Warming is predicted to exacerbate oxygen depletion in coastal systems through mechanisms similar to those of the open ocean.

Time scale [Gradstein et al., 2005] illustrating the stratigraphic position and nomenclature of OAEs (From Jenkyns, 2010).

The geological records show that large and rapid global warming events occurred repeatedly during the course of Earth history. The growing concern about modern climate change has accentuated interest in understanding the causes and consequences of these ancient abrupt warming events. The early Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event  (T-OAE; ∼183 mya) in the Jurassic Period is associated with a major negative carbon isotope excursion, mass extinction, marine transgression and global warming. Besides, the marked expansion of the oxygen minimum zone over the last decades, is quite similar to the model originally invoked for the genesis of Cretaceous OAEs. The better understanding of the Mesozoic ocean-climate system and the formation of OAEs would help us to predict environmental and biotic changes in a future greenhouse world.

References:

DENISE BREITBURG, LISA A. LEVIN, ANDREAS OSCHLIES, MARILAURE GRÉGOIRE, FRANCISCO P. CHAVEZ, DANIEL J. CONLEY, VÉRONIQUE GARÇON, DENIS GILBERT, DIMITRI GUTIÉRREZ, KIRSTEN ISENSEE, GIL S. JACINTO, KARIN E. LIMBURG, IVONNE MONTES, S. W. A. NAQVI, GRANT C. PITCHER, NANCY N. RABALAIS, MICHAEL R. ROMAN, KENNETH A. ROSE, BRAD A. SEIBEL, MACIEJ TELSZEWSKI, MORIAKI YASUHARA, JING ZHANG (2018), Declining oxygen in the global ocean and coastal waters, Science, Vol. 359, Issue 6371, DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7240

Jenkyns, H. C. (2010), Geochemistry of oceanic anoxic eventsGeochem. Geophys. Geosyst.11, Q03004, doi:10.1029/2009GC002788.

Holz, M., Mesozoic paleogeography and paleoclimates – a discussion of the diverse greenhouse and hothouse conditions of an alien world, Journal of South American Earth Sciences (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jsames.2015.01.001

Tennant, J. P., Mannion, P. D., Upchurch, P., Sutton, M. D. and Price, G. D. (2016), Biotic and environmental dynamics through the Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous transition: evidence for protracted faunal and ecological turnover. Biol Rev. doi:10.1111/brv.12255 

 

The Early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event.

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The Early Cretaceous (Aptian Age), 120 Ma.

The geological records show that large and rapid global warming events occurred repeatedly during the course of Earth history. The growing concern about modern climate change has accentuated interest in understanding the causes and consequences of these ancient abrupt warming events. The early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE1a, 120 Ma) represents a geologically brief time interval characterized by rapid global warming, dramatic changes in ocean circulation including widespread oxygen deficiency, and profound changes in marine biotas. During the event, black shales were deposited in all the main ocean basins. It was also associated with the calcification crisis of the nannoconids, the most ubiquitous planktic calcifiers during the Early Cretaceous. Their near disappearance is one of the most significant events in the nannoplankton fossil record.

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Scanning electron microscope photos of different nannofossil assemblages from Early Cretaceous chalks from the North Sea (adapted from Mutterlose & Bottini, 2013)

Calcareous nannoplankton represent a major component of oceanic phytoplankton. Their calcareous skeletons can be found in fine-grained pelagic sediments in high concentrations and the biomineralization of coccoliths is a globally significant rock-forming process. The ‘nannoconid decline’ is related to the emplacement of the Ontong Java Plateau (OJP). The  CO2 released by the flood basalts was the main player in the climatic events. However, records from the Pacific and Tethys realms demonstrate that during OAE 1a the  major shift in global oceanic osmium composition occurs well after the onset of the nannoconid crisis. Previous studies argued that the nannoconid crisis was caused by ocean acidification due to numerous pulses of CO2 and methane. The Ontong Java Plateau is a massive, submerged seafloor.  It covers an area of about 1,900,000 square kilometers. It  was emplaced ca. 120 Ma, with a much smaller magmatic pulse of ca. 90 Ma. The CO2 release was too late, and too gradual, to have caused the calcification crisis in the nannoconids by ocean acidification

References:

Naafs, B. D. A. et al., Gradual and sustained carbon dioxide release during Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event 1a, Nature Geosci. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2627 (2016)

Jenkyns, H. C. (2010), Geochemistry of oceanic anoxic events, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 11, Q03004, doi:10.1029/2009GC002788.

Brief introduction to the Toarcian oceanic anoxic event.

Early Jurassic reconstruction (From Wikimedia Commons)

Early Jurassic reconstruction (From Wikimedia Commons)

In Earth history there have been relatively brief intervals when a very significant expansion of low-oxygen regions occurred throughout the world’s oceans. In mid-1970s the discovery of black shales at many drill sites from the Atlantic, Indian, and the Pacific Ocean led to the recognition of widespread anoxic conditions in the global ocean spanning limited stratigraphic horizons. In 1976, Schlanger and Jenkyns termed these widespread depositional black shale intervals “Oceanic Anoxic Events” (Takashima et al, 2006). This was one of the greatest achievement of the DSDP (Deep Sea Drilling Project).

The Toarcian OAE, Weissert OAE, OAE 1a, and OAE 2 are global-scale anoxic events associated with prominent positive excursions of δ13C and worldwide distribution of black shales. Two models have been proposed to explain it: the stagnant ocean model (STO model) and the expanded oxygen-minimum layer model (OMZ model). Deep-water warming may have also contributed to a decrease in oxygen solubility in the deep ocean and may have triggered the dissociation of large volumes of methane hydrate buried in sediments of the continental margins.

Time scale [Gradstein et al., 2005] illustrating the stratigraphic position and nomenclature of OAEs (From Jenkyns, 2010).

Time scale [Gradstein et al., 2005] illustrating the stratigraphic position and nomenclature of OAEs (From Jenkyns, 2010).

In the Jurassic and Cretaceous oceans, the calcareous nannoplankton was the most efficient rock-forming group, for that reason the characterization of calcareous nannofloras in OAE intervals are used to improve our understanding of the marine ecosystem and biological processes such as photosynthesis (biological pump) and biomineralisation (carbonate pump) that affect the organic and inorganic carbon cycle, as well as adsorption of atmospheric CO2 in the oceans (Erba, 2013). Calcareous nannoplankton represent a major component of oceanic phytoplankton, ranging in size  from 0.25 to 30 μm. The first records are from the Late Triassic. Their calcareous skeletons can be found in fine-grained pelagic sediments in high concentrations and the biomineralization of coccoliths is a globally significant rock-forming process.

The early Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event  (T-OAE; ∼183 mya) in the Jurassic Period is considered as one of the most severe of the Mesozoic era. It’s associated with a major negative carbon isotope excursion, mass extinction, marine transgression and global warming (Huang, 2014, Ullmann et al., 2014). The T-OAE has been extensively studied in the past three decades although there is no general consensus about the causes or triggering mechanisms behind this event. During the peak of the perturbation corresponding to this event, calcareous nannofossils collapsed.

 

Schizosphaerella punctulata (adapted from Clémence, 2014)

Schizosphaerella punctulata (adapted from Clémence, 2014)

Schizosphaerella is a nannofossil of uncertain biological affinities with a large globular test with two interlocking sub-hemispherical valves formed from a geometric arrangement of equidimensional crystallites with an average value of 10.5 μm in the major axis. During the Early Jurassic, suffered a major drop in abundance, and a reduction in size. The average values drastically decrease down to 8.3 μm around the interval corresponding to the T-OAE. This event is know as ‘Schizosphaerellid crisis’, ‘calcareous nannofossil crisis’ or ‘disappearance event’ (Erba 2004, Clémence, 2014). Four main hypotheses have been proposed to account for the nannoplankton biocalcification crisis through the early Toarcian: (1) a strong stratification of the water column and the development of an oxygen-minimum zone; (2) the discharge of low salinity arctic waters through the Laurasian seaway; (3) high values in atmospheric pCO2; and (4) a rapid warming (Clémence, 2014).

Results from the Paris Bassin as in other localities indicates that the increasing greenhouse conditions may have caused acidification in the oceans, hampering carbonate bio-mineralisation, and provoking a dramatical loss in the CO2 storage capacity of the oceans. The CO2 induced changes in seawater chemistry likely affected the calcification potential of both neritic and pelagic systems, as evidenced by drops of platform-derived carbonate accumulation and drastic reductions in size of the main carbonate producer Schizosphaerella.

The better understanding of the Mesozoic ocean-climate system and the formation of OAEs would help us to predict environmental and biotic changes in a future greenhouse world.

References:

Marie-Emilie Clémence: Pattern and timing of the Early Jurassic calcareous nannofossil crisis.  Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 2014/doi: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2014.06.022.

Elisabetta Erba, Calcareous nannofossils and Mesozoic oceanic anoxic events, Marine Micropaleontology 52 (2004) 85 – 106

Bown, P.R., Lees, J.A., Young, J.R., (2004), Calcareous nannoplankton evolution and diversity through time. In: Thierstein, H.R., Young, J.R. (Eds.), Coccolithophores From Molecular Processes to Global Impact. Springer, Amsterdan, pp. 481–508.

Jenkyns, H. C. (2010), Geochemistry of oceanic anoxic events, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 11, Q03004, doi:10.1029/2009GC002788.