Articles | Volume 10, issue 2
Research article
16 Apr 2014
Research article |  | 16 Apr 2014

A seasonality trigger for carbon injection at the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum

J. S. Eldrett, D. R. Greenwood, M. Polling, H. Brinkhuis, and A. Sluijs

Abstract. The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) represents a ~170 kyr episode of anomalous global warmth ~56 Ma ago. The PETM is associated with rapid and massive injections of 13C-depleted carbon into the ocean–atmosphere system reflected as a prominent negative carbon isotope excursion (CIE) in sedimentary components. Earth's surface and deep ocean waters warmed by ~5 °C, of which part may have occurred prior to the CIE. However, few records document continental climatic trends and changes in seasonality have not been documented. Here we present the first high-resolution vegetation and paleoclimate reconstructions for the PETM, based on nearest living relative analysis of terrestrially derived spore and pollen assemblages preserved in an expanded section from the central North Sea. Our data indicate reductions in boreal conifers and an increase in mesothermal to megathermal taxa, reflecting a shift towards wetter and warmer climate. We also record an increase in summer temperatures, greater in magnitude than the rise in mean annual temperature changes, and a shift to a summer-wet seasonality. Within the CIE, vegetation varies significantly with initial increases in epiphytic and climbing ferns, and development of extensive wetlands, followed by abundance of Carya spp. indicative of broadleaf forest colonization. Critically, the change in vegetation we report occurs prior to the CIE, and is concomitant with anomalous marine ecological change, as represented by the occurrence of Apectodinium augustum. This suggests that amplifications of seasonal extremes triggered carbon injection.