The Descent into the Icehouse

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Geographical Sciences


For the majority (~80 %) of the last 600 million years or so the planet was considerably warmer and wetter than today, and largely ice free - it was in what is known as a 'greenhouse climate state'. The alternate mode, like today, where ice caps blanket both poles - a so called 'icehouse state', is a relatively rare condition for the climate system to be in. Over the last 600 million years the transitions between the two states tend to be rapid and each had dramatic consequences for life on Earth. The most recent of these fundamental climate transitions began around 50 million years ago and culminated at ~34 million years ago at the Eocene/Oligocene boundary with the rapid growth of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Due to the nature of the rock record, this most recent transition is the best studied and most well documented of the greenhouse to icehouse switches, but nonetheless the processes responsible are still much debated. The most popular hypothesis is that it was caused by a decline in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 - an important greenhouse gas. Although it has been recently confirmed that the final rapid switch at the Eocene/Oligocene boundary was associated with a dramatic decline in CO2, it has also been suggested that CO2 may not have been the main driver of the overall transition. There are instead a number of potential candidates that fall broadly into two camps - either this climate transition was driven purely by processes internal to the Earth (such as uplift of the Himalaya, ocean circulation, or volcanic outgassing of CO2) or it involved some, or all, aspects of the Earth surface, including biology, that can serve to cause and amplify change in a number of important ways. Due to the burning of fossil fuels, atmospheric CO2 concentrations may reach values typical of the greenhouse world of the Eocene by the end of this century. It is therefore becoming imperative to better understand the role of CO2 in driving these natural cycles of Earths climate, and consequently, the principal aim of this proposal is to determine the main driver of this most recent and dramatic switch in climate state. We will achieve this using a multidisciplinary approach that has aspects of both new data collection and computer modelling. The new data we will generate will involve revised estimates of CO2 concentrations and globally widespread estimates of ocean temperature, environmental parameters that cannot be directly determined for the past. We will study the fossil remains of sea-dwelling microscopic organisms, the foraminifers and coccolithophorids. These organisms are very abundant in the mud on the floor of the oceans, providing an invaluable archive of past ocean climate data, and by looking at the chemical composition of their shells or the organic compounds they biosynthesise we can determine how warm or how acidic the ocean was. And from such parameters, we can also deduce how much CO2 was in their environment. Armed with this improved understanding of how the climate system evolved leading up to the greenhouse-icehouse transition we can better investigate the natural processes that caused the change. Given the complex nature of the climate system this is best done with a variety of sophisticated computer modelling approaches. Crucially, it is only by guiding these computer simulations with the new data we have generated that we can isolate which of the myriad of potential processes was responsible for triggering this fundamental shift in climate and better determine how they impacted the evolution of life.


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Fenton IS (2016) The impact of Cenozoic cooling on assemblage diversity in planktonic foraminifera. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

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Inglis G (2017) Mid-latitude continental temperatures through the early Eocene in western Europe in Earth and Planetary Science Letters

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Inglis G (2020) A long-term, high-latitude record of Eocene hydrological change in the Greenland region in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology

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Kennedy AT (2015) Atmospheric and oceanic impacts of Antarctic glaciation across the Eocene-Oligocene transition. in Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences

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Kennedy-Asser A (2019) Assessing Mechanisms and Uncertainty in Modeled Climatic Change at the Eocene-Oligocene Transition in Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology

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Lunt DJ (2013) Warm climates of the past--a lesson for the future? in Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences

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Saupe EE (2019) Climatic shifts drove major contractions in avian latitudinal distributions throughout the Cenozoic. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Xiong Z (2020) The early Eocene rise of the Gonjo Basin, SE Tibet: From low desert to high forest in Earth and Planetary Science Letters

Description Compilation and generation of new data confirms that tropical sea surface temperatures did decreased during the Eocene during a time of global cooling. Although SSTs changed by only a small amount, this indicates that a tropical thermostat (in the strictest sense) did not exist. Also modelling work that indicates that this decrease was due to CO2, rather than changing tectonics.
Exploitation Route Developing collaborations with renewable energy sector: Our results highlight the important role of atmospheric carbon dioxide as a climate driver, emphasising the need to move to a carbon neutral economy.
Sectors Environment

Description NERC Large Grant
Amount £2,318,987 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P01903X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 08/2022
Description Bristol ChemLABS 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards.

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013