When palm trees gave way to spruce trees

Jun 17, 2009
New research reveals the demise of an ancient forest. These are dawn redwood stumps on Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut. Credit: David Greenwood

For climatologists, part of the challenge in predicting the future is figuring out exactly what happened during previous periods of global climate change.

One long-standing climate puzzle relates to a sequence of events 33.5 million years ago in the Late Eocene and Early Oligocene. Profound changes were underway. Globally, levels were falling and the hothouse warmth of the dinosaur age and Eocene Period was waning. In Antarctica, ice sheets had formed and covered much of the southern polar continent.

But what exactly was happening on land, in northern latitudes? When and how did Northern glaciation begin, and what does this knowledge add to the understanding of the relationship between carbon dioxide levels and today's climate?

An international team that included Dr. David Greenwood, an NSERC-funded researcher at Brandon University, now provides some of the very first detailed answers, and they come from an unusual source.

"Fossils of land plants are excellent indicators of past climates," said Dr. Greenwood. "But the fossil plant localities from the Canadian Arctic and Greenland don't appear to record this major climate change, and pose problems for precisely dating their age, so we needed to look elsewhere."

The "where" was in marine sediments entombed when the North Atlantic Ocean was beginning to open, and lying now at the bottom of today's Norwegian-Greenland Sea. Sediment cores taken from there contained a record of ancient spores and pollen blown from the continent to the west.

"These marine sediment cores give us a very precise chronology of the changes in the dominant land plants," said Dr. Greenwood "and since many of these species have modern relatives, we can assume that the temperatures and environments they lived in were very similar."

To arrive at a holistic picture of the climate of the transition, the researchers merged the plant data with physical information about the state of the atmosphere and ocean taken from chemical and isotopic information in the same sediments, and compared this to computer modelling of climate in the period.

"We can see that summer temperatures on land remained relatively warm throughout the Eocene/Oligocene transition, but that the period was marked by increasing seasonality," said Dr. Greenwood.

"Mean temperatures during the coldest month dropped by five degrees Celsius, to just above freezing," he said.

"This was probably not enough to create much in the way of continental ice on East Greenland," he said, "but it did wipe out palms and other subtropical trees such as swamp cypress. They were replaced by temperate climate trees such as spruces and hemlock."

The researcher said that, nonetheless, the middle period of the transition remained fairly warm. "Hickory and walnut were still present, but these became rare in the final stages," he said.

Although the march to a cooler world was gradual in northern latitudes, it was inevitable according to Dr. Greenwood.

"Changes in the earth's position in its orbit were leading a much greater seasonal range in radiation for polar regions and, overall, heat was becoming more concentrated in the tropics, largely due to a global drop in carbon in the atmosphere" he said.

Source: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

Explore further: Antarctic ice sheet is result of CO2 decrease, not continental breakup

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Ice core studies confirm accuracy of climate models

Sep 11, 2008

An analysis has been completed of the global carbon cycle and climate for a 70,000 year period in the most recent Ice Age, showing a remarkable correlation between carbon dioxide levels and surprisingly abrupt changes in ...

A bumpy shift from ice house to greenhouse

Jan 04, 2007

The transition from an ice age to an ice-free planet 300 million years ago was highly unstable, marked by dips and rises in carbon dioxide, extreme swings in climate and drastic effects on tropical vegetation, according to ...

Recommended for you

NASA sees Genevieve squeezed between 3 tropical systems

7 hours ago

The resurrected Tropical Depression Genevieve appears squeezed between three other developing areas of low pressure. Satellite data from NOAA and NASA continue to show a lot of tropical activity in the Eastern ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Avitar
3 / 5 (2) Jun 17, 2009
We used to call this kind of article a "then a miricle occures" article after a cartoon that was published. There is so much information missing. We see sweeping changes in the biological content of sea water based on the shift of rainfall into differant regions with the resulting change in run off. The changes in the 2280 BC two hundred year and the 1306 five hundred year mini-ice ages changed rainfall in ways that would distort the pollen and spores being added to the sea. What steps to correct for these effects observable in historic time for 33 million years?
omatumr
1 / 5 (1) Jun 20, 2009
DISCOVERY OF PAST CLIMATE CHANGES

I share Avitar's concern about missing information.

Did Dr. Greenwood only discovered what he was looking for?

Do the US National Academies and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) selectively fund research that will support their endorsement of anthropological CO2-induced global warming?

Either way Dr. David Greenwood's NSERC-funded research findings are intriguing.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
http://www.omatumr.com/