PETM Weirdness

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was a very weird period around 55 million years ago. However, the press coverage and discussion of a recent paper on the subject was weirder still.

For those of you not familiar with this period in Earth’s history, the PETM is a very singular event in the Cenozoic (last 65 million years). It was the largest and most abrupt perturbation to the carbon cycle over that whole period, defined by an absolutely huge negative isotope spike (> 3 permil in 13C). Although there are smaller analogs later in the Eocene, the size of the carbon flux that must have been brought into the ocean/atmosphere carbon cycle in that one event, is on a par with the entire reserve of conventional fossil fuels at present. A really big number – but exactly how big?

The story starts off innocently enough with a new paper by Richard Zeebe and colleagues in Nature Geoscience to tackle exactly this question. They use a carbon cycle model, tuned to conditions in the Paleocene, to constrain the amount of carbon that must have come into the system to cause both the sharp isotopic spike and a very clear change in the “carbonate compensation depth” (CCD) – this is the depth at which carbonates dissolve in sea water (a function of the pH, pressure, total carbon amount etc.). There is strong evidence that the the CCD rose hundreds of meters over the PETM – causing clear dissolution events in shallower ocean sediment cores. What Zeebe et al. come up with is that around 3000 Gt carbon must have been added to the system – a significant increase on the original estimates of about half that much made a decade or so ago, though less than some high end speculations.

Temperature changes at the same time as this huge carbon spike were large too. Note that this is happening on a Paleocene background climate that we don’t fully understand either – the polar amplification in very warm paleo-climates is much larger than we’ve been able to explain using standard models. Estimates range from 5 to 9 deg C warming (with some additional uncertainty due to potential problems with the proxy data) – smaller in the tropics than at higher latitudes.

Putting these two bits of evidence together is where it starts to get tricky.

First of all, how much does atmospheric CO2 rise if you add 3000 GtC to the system in a (geologically) short period of time? Zeebe et al. did this calculation and the answer is about 700 ppmv – quite a lot eh? However, that is a perturbation to the Paleocene carbon cycle – which they assume has a base CO2 level of 1000 ppm, and so you only get a 70% increase – i.e. not even a doubling of CO2. And since the forcing that goes along with an increase in CO2 is logarithmic, it is the percent change in CO2 that matters rather than the absolute increase. The radiative forcing associated with that is about 2.6 W/m2. Unfortunately, we don’t (yet) have very good estimates of background CO2 levels in Paleocene. The proxies we do have suggest significantly higher values than today, but they aren’t precise. Levels could have been less than 1000 ppm, or even significantly more.

If (and this is a key assumption that we’ll get to later) this was the only forcing associated with the PETM event, how much warmer would we expect the planet to get? One might be tempted to use the standard ‘Charney’ climate sensitivity (2-4.5ºC per doubling of CO2) that is discussed so much in the IPCC reports. That would give you a mere 1.5-3ºC warming which appears inadequate. However, this is inappropriate for at least two reasons. First, the Charney sensitivity is a quite carefully defined metric that is used to compare a certain class of atmospheric models. It assumes that there are no other changes in atmospheric composition (aerosols, methane, ozone) and no changes in vegetation, ice sheets or ocean circulation. It is not the warming we expect if we just increase CO2 and let everything else adjust.

In fact, the concept we should be looking at is the Earth System Sensitivity (a usage I am trying to get more widely adopted) as we mentioned last year in our discussion of ‘Target CO2‘. The point is that all of those factors left out of the Charney sensitivity are going to change, and we are interested in the response of the whole Earth System – not just an idealised little piece of it that happens to fit with what was included in GCMs in 1979.

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