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Marine and continental records show an abrupt negative shift in carbon isotope values at ~55.8 Myr ago. This carbon isotope excursion (CIE) is consistent with the release of a massive amount of isotopically light carbon into the atmosphere and was associated with a dramatic rise in global temperatures termed the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM). Greenhouse gases released during the CIE, probably including methane, have often been considered the main cause of PETM warming. However, some evidence from the marine record suggests that warming directly preceded the CIE, raising the possibility that the CIE and PETM may have been linked to earlier warming with different origins. Yet pre-CIE warming is still uncertain. Disentangling the sequence of events before and during the CIE and PETM is important for understanding the causes of, and Earth system responses to, abrupt climate change. Here we show that continental warming of about 5 °C preceded the CIE in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. Our evidence, based on oxygen isotopes in mammal teeth (which reflect temperature-sensitive fractionation processes) and other proxies, reveals a marked temperature increase directly below the CIE, and again in the CIE. Pre-CIE warming is also supported by a negative amplification of δ13C values in soil carbonates below the CIE. Our results suggest that at least two sources of warming—the earlier of which is unlikely to have been methane—contributed to the PETM.
Includes Supplementary Materials.