Articles | Volume 11, issue 1
Research article
16 Jan 2015
Research article |  | 16 Jan 2015

Drilling disturbance and constraints on the onset of the Paleocene–Eocene boundary carbon isotope excursion in New Jersey

P. N. Pearson and E. Thomas

Abstract. The onset of the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) and associated carbon isotope excursion (CIE; approx. 56 Mya) was geologically abrupt, but it is debated whether it took thousands of years or was effectively instantaneous. Wright and Schaller (2013) published a significant new record of the onset of the CIE, and claimed that it could be resolved across 13 annual layers in a drill core through the Marlboro clay at Millville, New Jersey (Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 174X). Supporting evidence for similar layering was reported from another New Jersey drill site, Wilson Lake B, and a photograph of the Marlboro clay in outcrop (Wright and Schaller, 2014). Such a short duration would imply an instantaneous perturbation of the atmosphere and surface ocean and the impact of a comet or asteroid as the likely cause. However, Pearson and Nicholas (2014) suggested, based on the published core photographs, that the layers in the Marlboro clay cores could be artifacts of drilling disturbance, so-called biscuiting, wherein the formation is fractured into layers or biscuits and drilling mud is injected in between the layers. (We now prefer the term core discing following Kidd, 1978.) Here we report new observations on the cores which support that interpretation, including concentric grooves on the surfaces of the core discs caused by spinning in the bit, micro-fracturing at their edges, and injected drilling mud. We re-interpret the limited outcrop evidence as showing joints rather than sedimentary layers. We argue that foraminifer concentrations in the sediments are far too high for the layers to have been annually deposited in turbid waters at depths of 40–70 m, indicating that the onset of the CIE in the Marlboro clay likely took on the order of millennia, not years (Zeebe et al., 2014). Re-coring of Millville aimed at minimizing drilling disturbance to allow a higher-resolution study of the carbon isotope excursion is highly desirable.

Short summary
The Paleocene-to-Eocene thermal maximum was a period of extreme global warming caused by perturbation to the global carbon cycle 56Mya. Evidence from marine sediment cores has been used to suggest that the onset of the event was very rapid, over just 11 years of annually resolved sedimentation. However, we argue that the supposed annual layers are an artifact caused by drilling disturbance, and that the microfossil content of the cores shows the onset took in the order of thousands of years.