The impact winter model and the end of the age of the dinosaurs

“Lucifer’s Hammer killed the dinosaurs,” said US physicist Luis Alvarez, in a lecture on the geochemical evidence he and his son found of a massive impact at the end of the Cretaceous period. A year later, Pemex (a Mexican oil company) identified Chicxulub as the site of this massive asteroid impact. The crater is more than 180 km (110 miles) in diameter and 20 km (10 miles) in depth. The impact released an estimated energy equivalent of 100 teratonnes of TNT, induced earthquakes, shelf collapse around the Yucatan platform, and widespread tsunamis that swept the coastal zones of the surrounding oceans. Global forest fires might have raged for months. Photosynthesis stopped and the food chain collapsed. The decrease of sunlight caused a drastic short-term global reduction in temperature. This phenomenon is called “impact winter”. Cold and darkness lasted for a period of years. Three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth disappeared, including non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, ammonites, and planktonic foraminifera.

Early work speculated that the eruption of the Deccan Traps large igneous province was the main abiotic driver of the K/Pg mass extinction. However, in the late ’70, the discovery of anomalously high abundance of iridium and other platinum group elements in the Cretaceous/Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary led to the hypothesis that an asteroid collided with the Earth and caused one of the most devastating events in the history of life.

Geologic (A) and paleontological (B) records of the K/Pg mass extinction. From Chiarenza et al., 2020.

The Deccan Traps in central India is formed from a series of short (∼100-ky) intermittent eruption pulses, with two main phases: one toward the end of the Cretaceous, and the other starting just before the boundary and continuing through the earliest Paleogene. A new study from Imperial College London, the University of Bristol and University College London, lead by Dr Alessandro Chiarenza, compared the climatic perturbations generated by Deccan volcanism and the asteroid impact. The new study found that the extreme cooling caused by the asteroid impact created the conditions for the dinosaur extinction worldwide. Additionally, they found that the Deccan’s influence after the event might have been of greater importance in determining ecological recovery rates after the asteroid-induced cooling, rather than delaying it.

Previous studies suggested that while the surface and lower atmosphere cooled (15 °C on a global average, 11 °C over the ocean, and 28 °C over land), the tropopause became much warmer, eliminate the tropical cold trap, and allow water vapor mixing ratios to increase to well over 1,000 ppmv in the stratosphere. Those events accelerated the destruction of the ozone layer. During this period, UV light was able to reach the surface at highly elevated and harmful levels.

References:

Alfio Alessandro Chiarenza, Alexander Farnsworth, Philip D. Mannion, Daniel J. Lunt, Paul J. Valdes, Joanna V. Morgan, and Peter A. Allison. Asteroid impact, not volcanism, caused the end-Cretaceous dinosaur extinction. PNAS, 2020 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2006087117

P.M. Hull et al., “On impact and volcanism across the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary,” Science (2019). Vol. 367, Issue 6475, pp. 266-272 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/367/6475/266

Alvarez, L., W. Alvarez, F. Asaro, and H.V. Michel. 1980. Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction: Experimental results and theoretical interpretation. Science 208:1095–1108.

The end-Triassic extinction: A tale of Death and Global Warming.

A basaltic lava flow section from the Middle Atlas, Morocco. From Wikimedia Commons.

For the last 540 million years, five mass extinction events shaped the history of the Earth. The End-Triassic Extinction (ETE) is typically attributed to climate change associated with degassing of basalt flows from the central Atlantic magmatic province (CAMP) 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.

The emplacement of CAMP started c. 100,000 years before the end-Triassic event and continued in pulses for 700,000 years. Three negative organic C-isotope excursions (CIEs) have being recognized at the end-Triassic: the Marshi, the Spelae, and the top-Tilmanni CIEs. A recent study published in Nature estimated that a single short-lived magmatic pulse would have released about 5 × 1016 mol CO2, roughly the same total amount of projected anthropogenic emissions over the 21st century, causing an increase of about 2 °C in global temperatures, and an oceanic pH decrease of about 0.15 units over 0.1 kyrs, suggesting that the end-Triassic climatic and environmental changes, driven by CO2 emissions, may have been similar to those predicted for the near future.

A normal fern spore compared with mutated ones from the end-Triassic mass extinction event. Image credit: S LINDSTRÖM, GEUS

These massive volcanic eruptions with lava flows, also released large quantities of sulphur dioxide, thermogenic methane and large amounts of HF, HCl, halocarbons and toxic aromatics and heavy metals into the atmosphere, resulting in global warming, and ozone layer depletion. The high concentrations of pCO2 are indicative of ocean acidification suggesting that this may have been a marine extinction mechanism especially in relation to the scleractinian corals. Mutagenesis observed in plants and their reproductive cells (spores and pollen) were likely caused by mercury, the most genotoxic element on Earth .

The new study confirms the abundance of CO2 (up to 105 Gt volcanic CO2 degassed during CAMP emplacement) and indicates that at least part of this carbon has a middle- to lower-crust or mantle origin, suggesting that CAMP eruptions were rapid and potentially catastrophic for both climate and biosphere. Since the industrial revolution, the wave of animal and plant extinctions that began with the late Quaternary has accelerated. Australia has lost almost 40 percent of its forests, and almost 20% of the Amazon has disappeared in last five decades.Calculations suggest that the current rates of extinction are 100–1000 times above normal, or background levels. If we want to stop the degradation of our planet, we need to act now.

 

References:

Capriolo, M., Marzoli, A., Aradi, L.E. et al. Deep CO2 in the end-Triassic Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. Nat Commun 11, 1670 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15325-6

Sofie Lindström et al. Volcanic mercury and mutagenesis in land plants during the end-Triassic mass extinction, Science Advances (2019). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw4018}

Davies, J., Marzoli, A., Bertrand, H. et al. End-Triassic mass extinction started by intrusive CAMP activity. Nat Commun 8, 15596 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms15596

The Forest Out of Time

An artist’s impression of Antarctica as a swampy rainforest between 92m and 83m years ago. (Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institut/James McKay)

 

Past fluctuations in global temperatures are crucial to understand Earth’s climatic evolution. During the mid-Cretaceous, Earth’s climate was extraordinarily warm with temperatures in the tropics as high as 35 degrees Celsius, particularly during the Turonian to Santonian stages (93.9–83.6 Ma), with increasingly high sea levels and numerous epicontinental seas. The interval was characterized by extensive deposition of organic carbon (OC) rich black shales across a wide range of marine settings. Because marine proxies dominate records of past temperature reconstructions, our understanding of continental climate is relatively poor. Now, researchers from the UK and Germany discovered evidence of a temperate rainforest in West Antartica. The new finding offers a window into the terrestrial conditions of the extreme southern latitudes during this period.

The evidence comes from a core of sediment drilled into the seabed near the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in West Antarctica. One section of the core revealed a network of fossil plant roots, and countless traces of pollen and spores from plants, including the first remnants of flowering plants ever found at these high Antarctic latitudes. Pollen assemblage is dominated by the conifer tree families Podocarpaceae and Araucariaceae. The abundant tree ferns includes Cyathea. The presence of Sterisporites antiquasporites (Bryophyta, Sphagnum) suggest the temporary existence of a peat swamp. This coincides with increasing Peninsulapollis pollen.

 

West Antarctica. Image: Unsplash/Henrique Setim

Pollen and other palynomorphs proved to be an extraordinary tool to palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. In 1921, Gunnar Erdtman, a Swedish botanist, was the first to suggest this application for fossil pollen study. Like spores, pollen grains reflects the ecology of their parent plants and their habitats and provide a continuous record of their evolutionary history. Based on the palynomorph assemblage, the researchers found that the annual mean air temperature was around 13 degrees Celsius, and the average temperature of the warmest summer month was 18.5°C, whereas the amount and intensity of rainfall were similar to those in today’s Wales.

The mid-Cretaceous was an interval of intense climatic, tectonic and biotic changes across Gondwana. The break-up of the supercontinent and the rise of angiosperms caused a global floral turnover. Antarctica is particularly important because it preserves rock sequences that record the climate during the break-up of the supercontinent and the climate changes during the onset of continental-scale glaciation.

 

References:

Klages, J.P., Salzmann, U., Bickert, T. et al. Temperate rainforests near the South Pole during peak Cretaceous warmth. Nature 580, 81–86 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2148-5

Forster, A. et al. Tropical warming and intermittent cooling during the Cenomanian/Turonian Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE 2): sea surface temperature records from the equatorial Atlantic. Paleoceanography 22, PA1219 (2007). DOI:10.1029/2006PA001349

“Lucifer’s Hammer killed the dinosaurs”

Lucifer’s Hammer Hardcover (1977)

The end of the Mesozoic era at ca. 66 million years ago (Ma) is marked by one of the most severe biotic crisis in Earth’s history: the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction. During the event, three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth disappeared, including non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, ammonites, and planktonic foraminifera. Two planetary scale disturbances were linked to this mass extinction event: the eruption of the Deccan Traps large igneous province, and the collision of an asteroid of more than 10 km in diameter with the Yucatan Peninsula.

“Lucifer’s Hammer”, written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, was the first major science fiction novel to try to deal realistically with the planetary emergency of an impact event. It was published in 1977. Almost at the same time, the discovery of anomalously high abundance of iridium and other platinum group elements in the Cretaceous/Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary led to the hypothesis that an asteroid collided with the Earth and caused one of the most devastating events in the history of life.

Gravity anomaly map of the Chicxulub impact structure (From Wikimedia Commons)

“Lucifer’s Hammer killed the dinosaurs,” said US physicist Luis Alvarez, in a lecture on the geochemical evidence he and his son found of a massive impact at the end of the Cretaceous period. A year later, Pemex (a Mexican oil company) identified Chicxulub as the site of this massive asteroid impact. The crater is more than 180 km (110 miles) in diameter and 20 km (10 miles) in depth. The impact released an estimated energy equivalent of 100 teratonnes of TNT, induced earthquakes, shelf collapse around the Yucatan platform, and widespread tsunamis that swept the coastal zones of the surrounding oceans.

The event also produced high concentrations of dust, soot, and sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere. Global forest fires might have raged for months. Photosynthesis stopped and the food chain collapsed. The combination of dust and aerosols precipitated a severe impact winter in the decades after impact. Ocean acidification was the trigger for mass extinction in the marine realm. Acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean and interferes with a range of processes including growth, calcification, development, reproduction and behaviour in a wide range of marine organisms like planktonic coccolithophores, foraminifera, echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae. Additionaly, ocean acidification can intensify the effects of global warming, in a dangerous feedback loop.

The Deccan traps

Early work speculated that the Chicxulub impact triggered large-scale mantle melting and initiated the Deccan flood basalt eruption. Precise dating of both, the impact and the flood basalts, show that the earliest eruptions of the Deccan Traps predate the impact. But, the Chicxulub impact, and the enormous Wai Subgroup lava flows of the Deccan Traps continental flood basalts appear to have occurred very close together in time. Marine volcanism also provides a potential source of oceanic acidification, but a recemt study by Yale University indicates that the sudden ocean acidification was caused by the Chicxulub bolide impact (and not by the volcanic activity) that vaporised rocks containing sulphates and carbonates, causing sulphuric acid and carbonic acid to rain down. The evidence came from the shells of planktic and benthic foraminifera. More recently, a new study focused on carbon cycle modeling and paleotemperature records shows that the Chicxulub impact was the primary driver of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.The global temperature compilation reveals that ~50% of Deccan Trap CO2 outgassing occurred well before the impact. Additionalty, the Late Cretaceous warming event attributed to Deccan degassing is of a comparable size to small warming events in the Paleocene and early Eocene.

References:
P.M. Hull et al., “On impact and volcanism across the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary,” Science (2019). Vol. 367, Issue 6475, pp. 266-272 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/367/6475/266

Alvarez, L., W. Alvarez, F. Asaro, and H.V. Michel. 1980. Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction: Experimental results and theoretical interpretation. Science 208:1095–1108.

Michael J. Henehan el al., “Rapid ocean acidification and protracted Earth system recovery followed the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact,” PNAS (2019). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1905989116

The Last Mammoths

Mammuthus primigenius, Royal British Columbia Museum. From Wikipedia Commons

During the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene, most of the terrestrial megafauna became extinct. It was a deep global-scale event. The extinction was notably more selective for large-bodied animals than any other extinction interval in the last 65 million years. Among them, the mammoths offers a very complete fossil record, and their evolution is usually presented as a succession of chronologically overlapping species, including (from earliest to latest) M. meridionalis (southern mammoths), M. trogontherii (steppe mammoths), and M. columbi (Columbian mammoths) and M. primigenius (woolly mammoths).

Wrangel Island coast. From Wikipedia Commons

From Siberia to Alaska, mammoths were widespread in the northern hemisphere and their remains inspired all types of legends. Their lineage arose in Africa during the late Miocene, and first appeared in Europe almost three million years ago. The iconic M. primigenius arose in northeastn Siberia from the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) and their extinction has inspired an impressive body of literature. Multiple explanatory hypotheses have been proposed for this event: climatic change, overhunting, habitat alteration, and the introduction of a new disease.

The world’s last population of woolly mammoths lived on Wrangel Island going extinct around 4,000 years ago. In contrast the mammoth population from Russia disappeared about 15,000 years ago, while the mammoths of St. Paul Island in Alaska disappeared 5,600 years ago. The Wrangel Island was a part of Beringia, an ancient landmass, that included the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Global sea level transgression at the end of the Pleistocene isolated Wrangel Island from the mainland and broke up Beringia. Palynological and isotopic evidence suggest that present climatic conditions and floral composition were established right after the Pleistocene-Holocene transition.

A mammoth tooth on the riverbank on Wrangel Island. Image credit; Juha Karhu/University of Helsinki

Tooth specimens are about 90% of all the mammoth material for Wrangel Island. The multi-isotopic evidence (carbon, nitrogen and sulfur in collagen) measured on Wrangel Island mammoths supports the idea that this relict population mantained a typical mammoth ecology despite climate change and decreasing genetic diversity. It has been suggested that the extinction of the Wrangel Island mammoths was possibly caused by a short-term crisis, possibly linked to climatic anomalies, however the anthropogenic influence should not be dismissed despite lack of tangible evidence of hunting.

 

References:

Laura Arppe, Juha A. Karhu, Sergey Vartanyan, Dorothée G. Drucker, Heli Etu-Sihvola, Hervé Bocherens. Thriving or surviving? The isotopic record of the Wrangel Island woolly mammoth population. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2019; 222: 105884 DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.105884

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.

 

Learning from Past Climate Changes

In the last 540 million years, five mass extinction events shaped the history of the Earth. Those events were related to extreme climatic changes and were mainly caused by asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruption, or the combination of both.  On a global scale the main forces behind climatic change are: solar forcing, atmospheric composition, plate tectonics, Earth’s biota, and of course, us. Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. From hunter-gatherer and agricultural communities to the highly technological societies of the 21st century, humans have driven the climate Earth system towards new, hotter climatic conditions. Until the Industrial Revolution, the average global CO2 levels fluctuated between about 170 ppm and 280 ppm. But with the beginning of the Industrial Era, that number risen above 300 ppm, currently averaging an increase of more than 2 ppm per year. The average monthly level of CO2 in the atmosphere in last April exceeded the 410 ppm for first time in history. Thus we could hit an average of 500 ppm within the next 45 years, a number that has been unprecedented for the past 50–100+ million years according to fossil plant-based CO2 estimates. This current human-driven change far exceed the rates of change driven by geophysical or biosphere forces that have altered the Earth System trajectory in the past, and it poses severe risks for health, economies and political stability. Learning from past climatic changes is critical to our future.

Planktonic foraminifera from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean. (Photograph courtesy Colomban de Vargas, EPPO/SBRoscoff.)

Microfossils from deep-sea are crucial elements for the understanding of our past and present oceans. Their skeletons take up chemical signals from the sea water, in particular isotopes of oxygen and carbon. Over millions of years, these skeletons accumulate in the deep ocean to become a major component of biogenic deep-sea sediments. The importance of microfossils as tool for paleoclimate reconstruction was recognized early in the history of oceanography. John Murray, naturalist of the CHALLENGER Expedition (1872-1876) found that differences in species composition of planktonic foraminifera from ocean sediments contain clues about the temperatures in which they lived. The ratio of heavy and light Oxygen in foraminifera shells can reveal how cold the ocean was and how much ice existed at the time the shell formed. Another tool to reconstruct paleotemperatures is the ratio of magnesium to calcium (Mg/Ca) in foraminiferal shells. Mg2+ incorporation into foraminiferal calcite  is influenced by the temperature of the surrounding seawater, and the Mg/Ca ratios increase with increasing temperature.

Diatoms and radiolarians are susceptible to different set of dissolution parameters than calcareous fossils, resulting in a different distribution pattern at the sea floor and have been used for temperature estimates in the Pacific and in the Antarctic Oceans, especially where calcareous fossils are less abundant. Diatom assemblages are also used in reconstructions of paleoproductivity.

Scanning electron microscope image of different types of pollen grains. Image from Wikipedia.

Pollen and other palynomorphs proved to be an extraordinary tool to paleoenvironmental reconstruction too. Pollen analysis involves the quantitative examination of spores and pollen at successive horizons through a core, specially in lake, marsh or delta sediments, especially in Quaternary sediments where the parent plants are well known. This provide information on regional changes in vegetation through time, and it’s also a valuable tool for archaeologists because it gives clues about man’s early environment and his effect upon it.

Stomatal frequency of land plants, which has been shown in some species to vary inversely with atmospheric pCO2, has been used to estimate paleo-pCO2 for multiple geological time periods. Stomata are the controlled pores through which plants exchange gases with their environments, and play a key role in regulating the balance between photosynthetic productivity and water loss through transpiration.

Temple I on The Great Plaza and North Acropolis seen from Temple II in Tikal, Guatemala. From Wikimedia Commons

Paleoecological records indicate that the transition to agriculture was a fundamental turning point in the environmental history of Mesoamerica. Tropical forests were reduced by agricultural expansion associated with growing human populations. Also soil loss associated with deforestation and erosion was one of the most consequential environmental impacts associated with population expansion in the Maya lowlands. This environmental crisis ended with the collapse of the Classic Maya society.

Human activity has significantly altered the climate in less than a century. Since 1970 the global average temperature has been rising at a rate of 1.7°C per century, and the rise in global CO2 concentration since 2000 is 10 times faster than any sustained rise in CO2 during the past 800,000 years. Today the most politically unstable countries are also places where environmental degradation affected food production and water supply. Other human societies have succumbed to climate change – like the Akkadians – while others have survived by changing their behavior in response to environmental change. We have the opportunity to protect the future of our own society by learning from the mistakes of our ancestors.

References:

David Evans, Navjit Sagoo, Willem Renema, Laura J. Cotton, Wolfgang Müller, Jonathan A. Todd, Pratul Kumar Saraswati, Peter Stassen, Martin Ziegler, Paul N. Pearson, Paul J. Valdes, Hagit P. Affek. Eocene greenhouse climate revealed by coupled clumped isotope-Mg/Ca thermometry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201714744 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1714744115

Nicholas P. Evans et al., Quantification of drought during the collapse of the classic Maya civilization, Science (2018); DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9871 

Will Steffen, et al.; Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene; PNAS (2018) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1810141115

Lessons from the past: Paleobotany and Climate Change

 

From 1984–2012, extensive greening has occurred in the tundra of Western Alaska, the northern coast of Canada, and the tundra of Quebec and Labrador. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Cindy Starr.

For the last 540 million years, Earth’s climate has oscillated between three basic states: Icehouse, Greenhouse (subdivided into Cool and Warm states), and Hothouse. The “Hothouse” condition is relatively short-lived and is consequence from the release of anomalously large inputs of CO2 into the atmosphere during the formation of Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs), when atmospheric CO2 concentrations may rise above 16 times (4,800 ppmv), while the “Icehouse” is characterized by polar ice, with alternating glacial–interglacial episodes in response to orbital forcing. The ‘Cool Greenhouse” displays  some polar ice and alpine glaciers,  with global average temperatures between 21° and 24°C. Finally, the ‘Warm Greenhouse’ lacks of any polar ice, and global average temperatures might have ranged from 24° to 30°C.

Reconstructions of Earth’s history have considerably improved our knowledge of episodes of rapid emissions of greenhouse gases and abrupt warming. Several episodes of global climate change were similar in magnitude to the anthropogenically forced climate change that has occurred during the past century. Consequently, the development of different proxy measures of paleoenvironmental parameters has received growing attention in recent years. Paleobotany, the study of fossil plants in deep geological time, offers key insights into vegetation responses to past global change, including suitable analogs for Earth’s climatic future.

Monthly average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii.

The main forces of climatic change on a global scale are solar forcing, atmospheric composition, plate tectonics, Earth’s biota, and of course, us. Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. Until the Industrial Revolution, the average global CO2 levels fluctuated between about 170 ppm and 280 ppm. But with the beginning of the Industrial Era, that number risen above 300 ppm, currently averaging an increase of more than 2 ppm per year. The average monthly level of CO2 in the atmosphere on last April exceeded the 410 ppm for first time in history. Thus we could hit an average of 500 ppm within the next 45 years, a number that have been unprecedented for the past 50–100+ million years according to fossil plant-based CO2 estimates. Therefore, the closest analog for today conditions is the Eocene, meaning greater similarities in continental configuration, ecosystem structure and function, and global carbon cycling.

Some of the best-studied intervals of global change in the fossil plant record include the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, 201.36 ± 0.17 Mya; the PETM, 56 Mya; and the Eocene–Oligocene boundary, 33.9 Mya.The first two events represent rapid greenhouse gas–induced global warming episodes; the last coincides with the initiation of the Antarctic ice sheet and global cooling leading to our current icehouse.

Time line of plant evolution (From McElwain, 2018)

During the PETM, compositional shifts in terrestrial vegetation were marked but transient in temperate latitudes and long-lived in the tropics. The PETM is characterized by the release of 5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, while temperatures increased by 5 – 8°C. High temperatures and likely increased aridity in the North American temperate biomes resulted in geologically rapid compositional changes as local mixed deciduous and evergreen forest taxa (such as Taxodium) decreased in relative abundance. These suggest that global warming has a marked effect on the composition of terrestrial plant communities that is driven predominantly by migration rather than extinction. However, it’s difficult to draw parallels with Anthropocene warming and vegetation responses because they are occurring at a minimum of 20 times faster than any past warming episode in Earth’s history.

In the early Eocene (56 to 49 Mya), a time of peak sustained global warmth, the Arctic Ocean was ice free, with a mosaic of mixed deciduous, evergreen (Picea, Pinus), and swamp forests, and with high densities of the aquatic fern Azolla. The Azolla bloom reduced the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to 650 ppm, reducing temperatures and setting the stage for our current icehouse Earth. The eventual demise of Azolla in the Arctic Ocean is attributed to reduced runoff and a slight salinity increase.

The modern fern Azolla filiculoides (From Wikipedia)

The Earth’s poles have warmed and will continue to warm at a faster rate than the average planetary warming, because the heat is readily transported poleward by oceans and the atmosphere due to positive feedback effects involving snow cover, albedo, vegetation, soot, and algal cover in the Arctic and Antarctic. This phenomenon is known as “polar amplification”.

Recent studies about the greening of the Arctic indicates that increasing shrubiness has likely already had an unexpected negative impact on herbivore populations, such as caribou, by decreasing browse quality. Thus, it is important to predict how short-term temporal trends in Arctic vegetation change will continue under CO2-induced global warming. The paleobotanical record of high Arctic floras may provide broad insight into these questions.

References:

Jennifer C. McElwain, Paleobotany and Global Change: Important Lessons for Species to Biomes from Vegetation Responses to Past Global Change, Annual Review of Plant Biology  (2018), DOI: 10.1146/annurev-arplant-042817-040405

 

A brief introduction to the Carnian Pluvial Episode.

Early-late Carnian (Late Triassic) palaeogeographic reconstruction showing some of the main vertebrate-bearing units (From Bernardi et al. 2018)

Dinosaurs likely originated in the Early to Middle Triassic. The Manda beds of Tanzania yielded the remains of the possible oldest dinosaur, Nyasasaurus parringtoni, and Asilisaurus, a silesaurid (the immediate sister-group to Dinosauria). However the oldest well-dated identified dinosaurs are from the late Carnian of the lower Ischigualasto Formation in northwestern Argentina, dated from 231.4 Ma to 225.9 Ma. The presence of dinosaurs, such as Panphagia, Eoraptor, and Herrerasaurus support the argument that Dinosauria originated during the Ladinian or earlier and that they were already well diversified in the early Carnian. Similarly, the Santa Maria and Caturrita formations in southern Brazil preserve basal dinosauromorphs, basal saurischians, and early sauropodomorphs. In North America, the oldest dated occurrences of vertebrate assemblages with dinosaurs are from the Chinle Formation. Two further early dinosaur-bearing formations, are the lower (and upper) Maleri Formation of India and the Pebbly Arkose Formation of Zimbabwe. These skeletal records of early dinosaurs document a time when they were not numerically abundant, and they were still of modest body size (Eoraptor had a slender body with an estimated weight of about 10 kilograms).

Trace fossil evidence suggests that the first dinosaur dispersal in the eastern Pangaea is synchronous with an important climate-change event named the “Carnian Pluvial Episode” (CPE) or “Wet Intermezzo”, dated to 234–232 Ma.

Skeleton of Eoraptor lunensis (PVSJ 512) in left lateral view. Scale bar equals 10 cm. From Sereno et al., 2013.

The Late Triassic is marked by a return to the hothouse condition of the Early Triassic, with two greenhouse crisis that may also have played a role in mass extinctions. Isotopic  records suggest  a global carbon cycle perturbation during the Carnian that was coincident with complex environmental changes and biotic turnover.

The CPE is often described as a shift from arid to more humid conditions (global warming, ocean acidification, mega-monsoonal conditions, and a generalised increase in rainfall). In the marine sedimentary basins of the Tethys realm, an abrupt change of carbonate factories and the establishment of anoxic conditions mark the beginning of the climate change. The CPE also marks the first massive appearance of calcareous nannoplankton, while groups, like bryozoans and crinoids, show a sharp decline during this event.

Palynological association from the Heiligkreuz Formation provide information on palynostratigraphy and palaeoclimate during the last part of the Carnian Pluvial Event (CPE). From Roghi et al., 2014

On land, palaeobotanical evidence shows a shift of floral associations of towards elements more adapted to humid conditions (the palynological record across the CPE suggest at least 3–4 discrete humid pulses). Several families and orders make their first appearance during the Carnian: bennettitaleans, modern ferns, and conifer families (Pinaceae, Araucariaceae, Cheirolepidaceae). The oldest biological inclusions found preserved in amber also come from the Carnian; and key herbivorous groups such as dicynodonts and rhynchosaurs, which had represented 50% or more of faunas, disappeared, and their places were taken by dinosaurs.

Despite the global significance of the CPE,  the trigger of the environmental change  is still disputed. Volcanic emissions from the Wrangellia igneous province and the dissociation of methane clathrates could be linked to the CPE. It seems that the combination of that events  would be the most likely explanation for the substantial shift of the C isotope excursion observed at the CPE.

 

References:

Massimo Bernardi et al. Dinosaur diversification linked with the Carnian Pluvial Episode, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03996-1

Miller et al., Astronomical age constraints and extinction mechanisms of the Late Triassic Carnian crisis, Scientific Reports | 7: 2557 | (2017) DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-02817-7

Rogui et al. Field trip to Permo-Triassic Palaeobotanical and Palynological sites of the Southern Alps, Geo.Alp. 11. 29-84. (2014)

Paul C. Sereno, Ricardo N. Martínez & Oscar A. Alcober (2013) Osteology of Eoraptor lunensis (Dinosauria, Sauropodomorpha),Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 32:sup1, 83-179, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2013.820113

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