PETM Weirdness

Now for the Paleocene, it is unlikely that changes in ice sheets were very relevant (there weren’t any to speak of). But changes in vegetation, ozone, methane and aerosols (of various sorts) would certainly be expected. Estimates of the ESS taken from the Pliocene, or from the changes over the whole Cenozoic imply that the ESS is likely to be larger than the Charney sensitivity since vegetation, ozone and methane feedbacks are all amplifying. I’m on an upcoming paper that suggests a value about 50% bigger, while Jim Hansen has suggested a value about twice as big as Charney. That would give you an expected range of temperature increases of 2-5ºC (our estimate) or 3-6ºC (Hansen) (note that uncertainty bands are increasing here but the ranges are starting to overlap with the observations). ALl of this assumes that there are no huge non-linearities in climate sensitivity in radically different climates – something we aren’t at all sure about either.

But let’s go back to the first key assumption – that CO2 forcing is the only direct impact of the PETM event. The source of all this carbon has to satisfy two key constraints – it must be from a very depleted biogenic source and it needs to be relatively accessible. The leading candidate for this is methane hydrate – a kind of methane ice that is found in cold conditions and under pressure on continental margins – often capping large deposits of methane gas itself. Our information about such deposits in the Paleocene is sketchy to say the least, but there are plenty of ideas as to why a large outgassing of these deposits might have occurred (tectonic uplift in the proto-Indian ocean, volcanic activity in the North Atlantic, switches in deep ocean temperature due to the closure of key gateways into the Arctic etc.).

Putting aside the issue of the trigger though, we have the fascinating question of what happens to the methane that would be released in such a scenario. The standard assumption (used in the Zeebe et al paper) is that the methane would oxidise (to CO2) relatively quickly and so you don’t need to worry about the details. But work that Drew Shindell and I did a few years ago suggested that this might not quite be true. We found that atmospheric chemistry feedbacks in such a circumstance could increase the impact of methane releases by a factor of 4 or so. While this isn’t enough to sustain a high methane concentration for tens of thousands of years following an initial pulse, it might be enough to enhance the peak radiative forcing if the methane was being released continuously over a few thousand years. The increase in the case of a 3000 GtC pulse would be on the order of a couple of W/m2 – for as long as the methane was being released. That would be a significant boost to the CO2-only forcing given above – and enough (at least for relatively short parts of the PETM) to bring the temperature and forcing estimates into line.

Of course, much of this is speculative given the difficulty in working out what actually happened 55 million years ago. The press response to the Zeebe et al paper was, however, very predictable.

The problems probably started with the title of the paper “Carbon dioxide forcing alone insufficient to explain Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum warming” which on it’s own might have been unproblematic. However, it was paired with a press release from Rice University that was titled “Global warming: Our best guess is likely wrong”, containing the statement from Jerry Dickens that “There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models”.

Since the know-nothings agree one hundred per cent with these two last statements, it took no time at all for the press release to get passed along by Marc Morano, posted on Drudge, and declared the final nail in the coffin for ‘alarmist’ global warming science on WUWT (Andrew Freedman at WaPo has a good discussion of this). The fact that what was really being said was that climate sensitivity is probably larger than produced in standard climate models seemed to pass almost all of these people by (though a few of their more astute commenters did pick up on it). Regardless, the message went out that ‘climate models are wrong’ with the implicit sub-text that current global warming is nothing to worry about. Almost the exact opposite point that the authors wanted to make (another press release from U. Hawaii was much better in that respect).

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