Core samples taken from far below the ocean floor are helping a University of Edinburgh geologist to form a picture of dramatic climate changes which took place 30 to 40 million years ago. Dr Bridget Wade is part of an international team of scientists studying climate shifts between the Eocene period – the warmest cycle in the last 65 million years – and the cooler Oligocene period, which saw the first major build-up of Antarctic ice. The study could shed new light on present climate trends as the Eocene climatic regime appears to have established itself rapidly – at a rate comparable to modern global warming – before ending almost as abruptly.
The team of 28 scientists from eight nations is analysing drill cores taken from eight sites near the equator in the Pacific Ocean in October. The cores are the first to be recovered which contain continuous geological records of the Eocene and Oligocene periods. Dr Wade is studying sediment which records the transition 33.7million years ago from the Eocene period – when London was covered by tropical rainforest and crocodiles swam in the River Thames – to the Oligocene period, a time about which scientists know relatively little.
The start of the Oligocene period coincides not only with huge climate shifts, but also with marked changes in the Earth’s oceanography. Scientists detect a shift towards patterns more like those today where wind systems from the northern and southern hemispheres come together and stir the ocean near the equator so that deep, nutrient-rich waters come to the surface and support a diverse, thriving community of plankton. In the Eocene period, the oceanic biological system had been broad and diffuse with low plankton productivity.
Ronald Kerr | alphagalileo
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