SOUTHAMPTON scientists have led pioneering research into what caused one of the most extreme episodes of global warming in the history of the Earth.
The team of scientists from the universities of Southampton, Edinburgh and Leeds discovered that prehistoric stretching of the continents is likely to have caused the extreme episode.
Extinction of organisms
Scientists studied the effects of global tectonic forces and volcanic eruptions during a period of environmental change 56 million years ago.
During this time, the planet experienced an increase in temperature of 5-8C, culminating in the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which lasted about 170,000 years.
This caused the extinction of many deep-sea organisms, reshaping the course of evolution of life on Earth.
Dr Tom Gernon, an associate professor of Earth science at the University of Southampton and lead author of the study, said: “It’s generally agreed that a sudden and massive release of the greenhouse gas, carbon, from the Earth’s interior must have driven this event, yet the scale and pace of warming is very hard to explain by conventional volcanic processes.”
'Altering vast ecosystems'
The extensive stretching of the continental plates in the northern hemisphere massively reduced the pressures in the Earth’s deep interior, according to the scientists.
This then drove intense, but short-lived melting in the mantle – a layer of sticky, molten rock just below the planet’s crust.
The team suggests that the resulting volcanic activity coincided with, and likely caused, a massive burst of carbon release into the atmosphere linked to PETM warming.
The scientists found evidence from rock drilled from the seafloor for a widespread episode volcanic activity lasting 200,000 years which coincided with the PETM.
Dr Gernon said this would have led to a rapid increase of carbon being released, which would have led to the global warming.
He added: “Such rapid events cause a fundamental reorganization of Earth’s surface environment, altering vast ecosystems.”
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