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Around 55 million years ago, an abrupt global warming event triggered a highly corrosive deep-water current to flow through the North Atlantic Ocean. This process, suggested by new climate model simulations, resolves a long-standing mystery regarding ocean acidification in the deep past.

The rise of CO2 that led to this dramatic acidification occurred during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a period when global temperatures rose by around 5°C over several thousand years and one of the largest-ever mass extinctions in the deep ocean occurred.

The PETM, 55 million years ago, is the most recent analogue to present-day climate change that researchers can find. Similarly to the warming we are experiencing today, the PETM warming was a result of increases in atmospheric CO2. The source of this CO2 is unclear, but the most likely explanations include methane released from the seafloor and/or burning peat.

During the PETM, like today, emissions of CO2 were partially absorbed by the ocean. By studying sediment records of the resulting ocean acidification, researchers can estimate the amount of CO2 responsible for warming. However, one of the great mysteries of the PETM has been why ocean acidification was not evenly spread throughout the world’s oceans but was so much worse in the Atlantic than anywhere else.

This pattern has also made it difficult for researchers to assess exactly how much CO2 was added to the atmosphere, causing the 5°C rise in temperatures. This is important for climate researchers as the size of the PETM carbon release goes to the heart of the question of how sensitive global temperatures are to greenhouse gas emissions.

Solving the mystery of these remarkably different patterns of sediment dissolution in different oceans is a vital key to understanding the rapid warming of this period and what it means for our current climate.

A study recently published in Nature Geoscience shows that my co-authors Katrin Meissner, Tim Bralower and I may have cracked this long-standing mystery and revealed the mechanism that led to this uneven ocean acidification.

We now suspect that atmospheric CO2 was not the only contributing factor to the remarkably corrosive Atlantic Ocean during the PETM. Using global climate model simulations that replicated the ocean basins and landmasses of this period, it appears that changes in ocean circulation due to warming played a key role.

55 million years ago, the ocean floor looked quite different than it does today. In particular, there was a ridge on the seafloor between the North and South Atlantic, near the equator. This ridge completely isolated the deep North Atlantic from other oceans, like a giant bathtub on the ocean floor.

In our simulations this “bathtub” was filled with corrosive water, which could easily dissolve calcium carbonate. This corrosive water originated in the Arctic Ocean and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic after mixing with dense salty water from the Tethys Ocean (the precursor to today’s Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian Seas).

Our simulations then reproduced the effects of the PETM as the surface of the Earth warmed in response to increases in CO2. The deep ocean, including the corrosive bottom water, gradually warmed in response. As it warmed it became less dense. Eventually the surface water became denser than the warming deep water and started to sink, causing the corrosive deep water mass to spill over the ridge – overflowing the “giant bath tub”.

The corrosive water then spread southward through the Atlantic, eastward through the Southern Ocean, and into the Pacific, dissolving sediments as it went. It became more diluted as it travelled and so the most severe effects were felt in the South Atlantic. This pattern agrees with sediment records, which show close to 100% dissolution of calcium carbonate in the South Atlantic.

If the acidification event occurred in this manner it has important implications for how strongly the Earth might warm in response to increases in atmospheric CO2.

If the high amount of acidification seen in the Atlantic Ocean had been caused by atmospheric CO2 alone, that would suggest a huge amount of CO2 had to go into the atmosphere to cause 5°C warming. If this were the case, it would mean our climate was not very sensitive to CO2.

But our findings suggest other factors made the Atlantic far more corrosive than the rest of the world’s oceans. This means that sediments in the Atlantic Ocean are not representative of worldwide CO2 concentrations during the PETM.

Comparing computer simulations with reconstructed ocean warming and sediment dissolution during the event, we could narrow our estimate of CO2 release during the event to 7,000 – 10,000 GtC. This is probably similar to the CO2 increase that will occur in the next few centuries if we burn most of the fossil fuels in the ground.

To give this some context, today we are emitting CO2 into the atmosphere at least 10 times faster than than the natural CO2 emissions that caused the PETM. Should we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, we are likely to see the same temperature increase in the space of a few hundred years that took a few thousand years 55 million years ago.

This is an order of magnitude faster and it is likely the impacts from such a dramatic change will be considerably stronger.

Written with the help of my co-authors Katrin and Tim, as well as our lab’s communications manager Alvin Stone.

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Life on Earth does not enjoy change, and climate change is something it likes least of all. Every aspect of an organism’s life depends on climate, so if that variable changes, everything else changes too – the availability of food and water, the timing of migration or hibernation, even the ability of bodily systems to keep running.

Species can adapt to gradual changes in their environment through evolution, but climate change often moves too quickly for them to do so. It’s not the absolute temperature, then, but the rate of change that matters. Woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers thrived during the Ice Ages, but if the world were to shift back to that climate overnight, we would be in trouble.

Put simply, if climate change is large enough, quick enough, and on a global scale, it can be the perfect ingredient for a mass extinction. This is worrying, as we are currently at the crux of a potentially devastating period of global warming, one that we are causing. Will our actions cause a mass extinction a few centuries down the line? We can’t tell the future of evolution, but we can look at the past for reference points.

There have been five major extinction events in the Earth’s history, which biologists refer to as “The Big Five”. The Ordovician-Silurian, Late Devonian, Permian-Triassic, Late Triassic, Cretaceous-Tertiary…they’re a bit of a mouthful, but all five happened before humans were around, and all five are associated with climate change. Let’s look at a few examples.

The most recent extinction event, the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction, is also the most well-known and extensively studied: it’s the event that killed the dinosaurs. Scientists are quite sure that the trigger for this extinction was an asteroid that crashed into the planet, leaving a crater near the present-day Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Devastation at the site would have been massive, but it was the indirect, climatic effects of the impact that killed species across the globe. Most prominently, dust and aerosols kicked up by the asteroid became trapped in the atmosphere, blocking and reflecting sunlight. As well as causing a dramatic, short-term cooling, the lack of sunlight reaching the Earth inhibited photosynthesis, so many plant species became extinct. This effect was carried up the food chain, as first herbivorous, then carnivorous, species became extinct. Dinosaurs, the dominant life form during the Cretaceous Period, completely died out, while insects, early mammals, and bird-like reptiles survived, as their small size and scavenging habits made it easier to find food.

However, life on Earth has been through worse than this apocalyptic scenario. The
largest extinction in the Earth’s history, the Permian-Triassic extinction, occurred about 250 million years ago, right before the time of the dinosaurs. Up to 95% of all species on Earth were killed in this event, and life in the oceans was particularly hard-hit. It took 100 million years for the remaining species to recover from this extinction, nicknamed “The Great Dying”, and we are very lucky that life recovered at all.

So what caused the Permian-Triassic extinction? After the discovery of the K-T crater, many scientists assumed that impact events were a prerequisite for extinctions, but that probably isn’t the case. We can’t rule out the possibility that an asteroid aggravated existing conditions at the end of the Permian period. However, over the past few years, scientists have pieced together a plausible explanation for the Great Dying. It points to a trigger that is quite disturbing, given our current situation – global warming from greenhouse gases.

In the late Permian, a huge expanse of active volcanoes existed in what is now Siberia. They covered 4 million square kilometres, which is fifteen times the area of modern-day Britain (White, 2002). Over the years, these volcanoes pumped out massive quantities of carbon dioxide, increasing the average temperature of the planet. However, as the warming continued, a positive feedback kicked in: ice and permafrost melted, releasing methane that was previously safely frozen in. Methane is a far stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – over 100 years, it traps approximately 21 times more heat per molecule (IPCC AR4). Consequently, the warming became much more severe.

When the planet warms a lot in a relatively short period of time, a particularly nasty condition can develop in the oceans, known as anoxia. Since the polar regions warm more than the equator, the temperature difference between latitudes decreases. As global ocean circulation is driven by this temperature difference, ocean currents weaken significantly and the water becomes relatively stagnant. Without ocean turnover, oxygen doesn’t get mixed in – and it doesn’t help that warmer water can hold less oxygen to begin with. As a result of this oxygen depletion, bacteria in the ocean begins to produce hydrogen sulfide (H2S). That’s what makes rotten eggs smell bad, and it’s actually poisonous in large enough quantities. So if an organism wasn’t killed off by abrupt global warming, and was able to survive without much oxygen in the ocean (or didn’t live in the ocean at all), it would probably soon be poisoned by the hydrogen sulfide being formed in the oceans and eventually released into the atmosphere.

The Permian-Triassic extinction wasn’t the only time anoxia developed. It may have been a factor in the Late Triassic extinction, as well as smaller extinctions between the Big Five. Overall, it’s one reason why a warm planet tends to be less favourable to life than a cold one, as a 2008 study in the UK showed. The researchers examined 520 million years of data on fossils and temperature reconstructions, which encompasses almost the entire history of multicellular life on Earth. They found that high global temperatures were correlated with low levels of biodiversity (the number of species on Earth) and high levels of extinction, while cooler periods enjoyed high biodiversity and low extinction.

Our current situation is looking worse by the minute. Not only is the climate changing, but it’s changing in the direction which could be the least favourable to life. We don’t have volcanic activity anywhere near the scale of the Siberian Traps, but we have a source of carbon dioxide that could be just as bad: ourselves. And worst of all, we could prevent much of the coming damage if we wanted to, but political will is disturbingly low.

How bad will it get? Only time, and our decisions, will tell. A significant number of the world’s species will probably become extinct. It’s conceivable that we could cause anoxia in the oceans, if we are both irresponsible and unlucky. It wouldn’t be too hard to melt most of the world’s ice, committing ourselves to an eventual sea level rise in the tens of metres. These long-range consequences would take centuries to develop, so none of us has to worry about experiencing them. Instead, they would fall to those who come after us, who would have had no part in causing – and failing to solve – the problem.

References:

Mayhew et al (2008). A long-term association between global temperature and biodiversity, origination and extinction in the fossil record. Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 275: 47-53. Read online

Twitchett (2006). The paleoclimatology, paleoecology, and paleoenvironmental analysis of mass extinction events. Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology, 234(2-4): 190-213. Read online

White (2002). Earth’s biggest “whodunnit”: unravelling the clues in the case of the end-Permian mass extinction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Mathematical, Physical, & Engineering Sciences, 360: 2963-2985. Read online

Benton and Twitchett (2003). How to kill (almost) all life: the end-Permian extinction event. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 18(7): 358-365. Read online

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