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Snapshot of past climate reveals no ice in Antarctica millions of years ago

30 Gorffennaf 2008

Typical specimen of Globerinatheka index from Hampden Beach

New research by a team of scientists in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences is presenting a snapshot of New Zealand’s climate 40 million years ago which reveals a greenhouse Earth, with warmer seas and little or no ice in Antarctica.

Led by PhD researcher Catherine Burgess, with Professor Paul Pearson and Dr Caroline Lear, the study suggests that Antarctica at that time was yet to develop extensive ice sheets.

Back then, New Zealand was about 1100 km further south, at the same latitude as the southern tip of South America – so was closer to Antarctica – but the researchers found that the water temperature was 23-25°C at the sea surface and 11-13°C at the bottom.

Published in the journal Geology Catherine (Cat) Burgess said: "This is too warm to be the Antarctic water we know today, and the seawater chemistry shows there was little or no ice on the planet."

These new insights come from the chemical analysis of exceptionally well preserved fossils of marine micro-organisms called foraminifers, discovered in marine rocks from New Zealand. The researchers tested the calcium carbonate shells from these fossils, which were found in 40 million-year-old sediments on a cliff face at Hampden Beach, South Island.

"Because the fossils are so well preserved, they provide more accurate temperature records." added Cat. "Our findings demonstrate that the water temperature these creatures lived in was much warmer than previous records have shown."

"Although we did not measure carbon dioxide, several studies suggest that greenhouse gases forty million years ago were similar to those levels that are forecast for the end of this century and beyond.

Our work provides another piece of evidence that, in a time period with relatively high carbon dioxide levels, temperatures were higher and ice sheets were much smaller and likely to have been completely absent."

The rock sequence from the cliff face covers a time span of 70,000 years and shows cyclical temperature variations with a period of about 18,000 years. The temperature oscillation is likely to be related to the Earth’s orbital patterns.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NOW) and GNS Science, New Zealand.

"Middle Eocene climate cyclicity in the Southern Pacific: Implications for global ice volume" is published in the August issue of Geology. (vol.36, no.8, p.651-654; doi:10.1130/G24762A.1)

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