Skip to main content

Tales from the field: reconstructing past warm climates

The warmest period of the past 65 million years was the early Eocene epoch (55 to 48 million years ago). During this period, the equator-to-pole temperature gradient was reduced and atmospheric carbon dioxide (pCO2) was in excess of 1000ppm. The early Eocene has received considerable interest because it may provide insight into the response of Earth’s climate and biosphere to the high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that are expected in the near future as a consequence of unabated anthropogenic carbon emissions (IPCC AR4). However, climatic conditions of the early Eocene ‘greenhouse world’, are poorly constrained, particularly in mid-to-low latitude terrestrial environments (Huber and Caballero, 2011).

I recently spent a week in eastern Germany (Schoeningen, Lower Saxony) sampling an early Eocene lignite seam (Fig. 1). Lignite is a type of soft brown coal that is an excellent terrestrial climate archive. Using palynology, organic geochemistry, coal petrography and climate models, we will try to reconstruct the terrestrial environment of the early Eocene and provide insights into future climate change. 

Fig. 1. A view of the mine with Dr. Volker Wilde on the far right for scale.

During this trip, we were sampling at the base of the mine beside a very large and very dusty bucket-wheel excavator (Fig. 2). A bucket-wheel excavator is a continuous digging machine over 200m long and dwarfs the large NASA Crawler that transports space shuttles to launch pads. Once the lignite is removed, it is placed upon a conveyor belt and transported immediately to a nearby power station. Unfortunately, the Schoeningen lignite will not last forever and the town will have to consider other energy sources (e.g. wind).

Fig. 2. A bucket-wheel excavator at Schoeningen mine.

Our sampling technique was less impressive yet equally effective. All we required were hammers, chisels and pick-axes (Fig. 3.). After a long day of sampling, we were taken to a very special outcrop at the top of the mine. The exposure contained well-reserved palm tree stumps from the early Eocene and provide evidence for white beaches, tropical plants and endless sunshine on the German coastline. An ideal holiday destination!

Fig. 3. Dr. Marcus Badger sampling Main Seam in high resolution.

Following fieldwork we were taken to the new Schoeningen museum containing, amongst other artefacts, the Schoeningen Spears (Fig. 4). The Schoeningen spears are 300,000 years old and are the oldest human weapons in existence. The spears were found with approximately 16,000 animal bones, amongst them 90% were horse bones, followed by red deer and bison. It has been proposed that these spears were the earliest projectile weapons and were used for 'big game hunts'. Although this theory has been questioned, it remains one of the worlds most exciting archaeological finds.

Fig.4. The Schoeningen spears. Most were preserved fully intact.

Now we are back in Bristol its time to start processing our samples so we can understand what the early Eocene terrestrial climate was like. Watch this space!

---------
The trip was in collaboration with members of Bristol (UK), Royal Holloway (UK), Gottingen (Germany) and Senckenberg (Germay).

This blog was written by Gordon Inglis (http://climategordon.wordpress.com).

Popular posts from this blog

Bristol Future’s magical places: Sustainability through the eyes of the community

“What is science? Why do we do it?”. I ask these questions to my students a lot, in fact, I spend a lot of time asking myself the same thing.

And of course, as much as philosophy of science has thankfully graced us with a lot of scholars, academics and researchers who have discussed, and even provided answers to these questions, sometimes, when you are buried under piles of papers, staring at your screen for hours and hours on end, it doesn’t feel very science-y, does it?

 As a child I always imagined the scientist constantly surrounded by super cool things like the towers around Nicola Tesla, or Cousteau being surrounded by all those underwater wonders. Reality though, as it often does, may significantly differ from your early life expectations. I should have guessed that Ts and Cs would apply… Because there is nothing magnificent about looking for that one bug in your code that made your entire run plot the earth inside out and upside down, at least not for me.

I know for myself, I…

The new carbon economy - transforming waste into a resource

As part of Green Great Britain Week, supported by BEIS, we are posting a series of blogs throughout the week highlighting what work is going on at the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute for the Environment to help provide up to date climate science, technology and solutions for government and industry.  We will also be highlighting some of the big sustainability actions happening across the University and local community in order to do our part to mitigate the negative effects of global warming. Today our blog will look at 'Technologies of the future: clean growth and innovation'.



On Monday 8 October 2018, the IPCC released a special report which calls upon world governments to enact policies which will limit global warming to 1.5°C compared with pre-industrial levels, failure to do so will drastically increase the probability of ecosystem collapses, extreme weather events and complete melting of Arctic sea ice. Success will require “rapid and far-reaching” actions in…

Will July’s heat become the new normal?

For the past month, Europe has experienced a significant heatwave, with both high temperatures and low levels of rainfall, especially in the North. Over this period, we’ve seen a rise in heat-related deaths in major cities, wildfires in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and a distinct ‘browning’ of the European landscape visible from space.

As we sit sweltering in our offices, the question on everyone’s lips seems to be “are we going to keep experiencing heatwaves like this as the climate changes?” or, to put it another way, “Is this heat the new norm?”

Leo Hickman, Ed Hawkins, and others, have spurred a great deal of social media interest with posts highlighting how climate events that are currently considered ‘extreme’, will at some point be called ‘typical’ as the climate evolves.
In January 2007, the BBC aired a special programme presented by Sir David Attenborough called "Climate Change - Britain Under Threat".

It included this imagined weather forecast for a "typical s…