ScienceDaily (Apr. 4, 2012) — In a new study reported in Nature, climate scientist Rob DeConto of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and colleagues elsewhere propose a simple new mechanism to explain the source of carbon that fed a series of extreme warming events about 55 million years ago, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), and a sequence of similar, smaller warming events afterward.
"The standard hypothesis has been that the source of carbon was in the ocean, in the form of frozen methane gas in ocean-floor sediments," DeConto says. "We are instead ascribing the carbon source to the continents, in polar latitudes where permafrost can store massive amounts of carbon that can be released as CO2 when the permafrost thaws."
The new view is supported by calculations estimating interactions of variables such as greenhouse gas levels, changes in Earth's tilt and orbit, ancient distributions of vegetation, and carbon stored in rocks and in frozen soil.
While the amounts of carbon involved in the ancient soil-thaw scenarios was likely much greater than today, implications of the study appear dire for the long-term future as polar permafrost carbon deposits have begun to thaw due to burning fossil-fuels, DeConto adds. "Similar dynamics are at play today. Global warming is degrading permafrost in the north polar regions, thawing frozen organic matter, which will decay to release CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. This will only exacerbate future warming in a positive feedback loop."
Earth's atmospheric temperature is a result of energy input from the sun minus what escapes back to space. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs and traps heat that would otherwise return to space. The PETM was accompanied by a massive carbon input to the atmosphere, with ocean acidification, and was characterized by a global temperature rise of about 5 degrees C in a few thousand years, the researchers point out. Until now, it has been difficult to account for the massive amounts of carbon required to cause such dramatic global warming events.