Volcanoes blamed for prehistoric warming

Times Staff Writer

Scientists believe they have solved the mystery of what caused the most rapid global warming in known geologic history, a cataclysmic temperature spike 55 million years ago driven by concentrations of greenhouse gases hundreds of times greater than today.

The culprit, the researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science, was a series of volcanic eruptions that set off a chain reaction releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

The eruptions occurred on the rift between two continental plates as Greenland and Europe separated.

In 10,000 years -- a blip in Earth’s history -- the polar seas turned into tropical baths, deep-sea microorganisms went extinct, and mammals migrated poleward as their habitats warmed.


It took about 200,000 years for the atmospheric carbon to transfer to the deep ocean, allowing the planet to cool.

The event, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, was discovered in the early 1990s. Since then, scientists have studied it to better predict how Earth will respond to the current buildup of greenhouse gases.

The ancient warming was sparked by the release of 1,500 to 4,000 gigatons of carbon over several thousand years, scientists estimate. By comparison, emissions from human activities are about 7 gigatons a year -- a much faster rate.

During the thermal maximum, “carbon was released over thousands of years,” said James Zachos, an earth sciences professor at UC Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the study. “We’re going to do it in a few centuries.”

Topic of dispute

The cause of the ancient warming has been a source of scientific debate.

In the latest study, researchers from the United States and Denmark analyzed volcanic ash found on basalt cliffs in Greenland and buried under the floor of the North Atlantic Ocean. The samples showed that the timing of the eruptions corresponded to the ancient warming.

Scientists knew that volcanic eruptions alone would not provide enough greenhouse gases to account for the warming -- a jump of more than 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Previous research has suggested two possible sources of carbon: ocean floor sediments containing chemicals known as methyl hydrates, and land sediments rich in organic material.

The new study suggests that the eruptions triggered a chain reaction involving the land sediments.

Hot lava flows “cooked” organic material as the continents divided, releasing greenhouse gases, said coauthor Robert Duncan, a professor at Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

He described the organic material as the “turbocharger” that accelerated the warming.

Unsolved mystery?

Some scientists say the mystery is not quite solved.

James Kennett, an oceanographer at UC Santa Barbara who helped discover the thermal maximum, said he was not convinced that the localized volcanic eruptions were enough to set off a global warming.

Jerry Dickens, an oceanographer at Rice University in Houston, said there wasn’t enough evidence showing that a volcano-prompted chain reaction would provide enough carbon emissions to account for such a sharp warming. He favors explanations that involve sediments on the ocean floor.

But other researchers say that the timing of the eruptions is difficult to dismiss as coincidence.

“This looks like the perfect fit,” Zachos said.