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 (


  1. This is a very awesome outcrop and reveal so much climatic archived. Will be interested in the palynology of the section. Kudos to your elbows Gordon, expecting to read the outcome of your findings soon.

  2. Thanks Mohammed! I will keep you updated!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Diamond Battery – your ideas for future energy generation

On Friday 25th November, at the Cabot Institute Annual Lecture, a new energy technology was unveiled that uses diamonds to generate electricity from nuclear waste. Researchers at the University of Bristol, led by Prof. Tom Scott, have created a prototype battery that incorporates radioactive Nickel-63 into a diamond, which is then able to generate a small electrical current.
Details of this technology can be found in our official press release here:
Despite the low power of the batteries (relative to current technologies), they could have an exceptionally long lifespan, taking 5730 years to reach 50% battery power. Because of this, Professor Tom Scott explains:
“We envision these batteries to be used in situations where it is not feasible to charge or replace conventional batteries. Obvious applications would be in low-power electrical devices where long life of the energy source is needed, such as pacemakers, satellite…

Dadaism in Disaster Risk Reduction: Reflections against method

Reflections and introductions: A volta The volta is a poetic device, closely but not solely, associated with the Shakespearean sonnet, used to enact a dramatic change in thought or emotion. Concomitant with this theme is that March is a month with symbolic links to change and new life. The Romans famously preferred to initiate the most significant socio-political manoeuvres of the empire during the first month of their calendar, mensis Martius. A month that marked the oncoming of spring, the weakening of winter’s grip on the land and a time for new life.
The need for change Having very recently attended the March UKADR conference, organised by the Cabot Institute here in Bristol, I did so with some hope and anticipation. Hope and anticipation for displays and discussions that conscientiously touched upon this volta, this need for change in how we study the dynamics of natural hazards. The conference itself was very agreeable, it had great sandwiches, with much stimulating discussion …

Localising the Sustainable Development Goals for Bristol

In 2015 the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were ratified by 193 of the UN member nations. These goals set ambitious targets to address worldwide issues of sustainable development, such as social inequality, responsible and inclusive economic development and environmental protection. They were created for everyone, everywhere and have been described as ‘the closest thing the world has to a strategy’.

Who will be responsible for ensuring we achieve these goals and how will they be achieved?
In the realm of international agreements, national governments have traditionally been responsible for local implementation. But a combination of profound global demographic shifts and a sense that national governments are increasingly incapable of tackling complex global challenges due to domestic political wrangling has given rise to a global movement to place cities at the heart of efforts to tackle both local and global challenges.  This movement, which is coalescing around a constel…