Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 27 Issue 01

View Issue TOC
Volume 27, No. 1
Pages 36 - 49


Was the Late Paleocene-Early Eocene Hot Because Earth Was Flat? An Ocean Lithium Isotope View of Mountain Building, Continental Weathering, Carbon Dioxide, and Earth's Cenozoic Climate

By Flip Froelich  and Sambuddha Misra 
Jump to
Article Abstract Citation References Copyright & Usage
Article Abstract

Hothouse climates in Earth’s geologic past, such as the Eocene epoch, are thought to have been caused by the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide and/or methane, which had been stored as carbon in biogenic gases and organic matter in sediments, to the ocean-atmosphere system. However, to avoid runaway temperatures, there must be long-term negative feedbacks that consume CO2 on time scales longer than the ~ 100,000 years generally ascribed to ocean uptake of CO2 and burial of marine organic carbon. Here, we argue that continental chemical weathering of silicate rocks, the ultimate long-term (multi-million year) sink for CO2 , must have been almost dormant during the late Paleocene and early Eocene, allowing buildup of atmospheric CO2 to levels exceeding 1,000 ppm. This reduction in the strength of the CO2 sink was the result of minimal global tectonic uplift of silicate rocks that did not produce mountains susceptible to physical and chemical weathering, an inversion of the Uplift-Weathering Hypothesis. There is lack of terrestrial evidence for absence of uplift; however, the δ7Li chemistry of the Paleogene ocean indicates that continental relief during this period of the Early Cenozoic was one of peneplained (flat) continents characterized by high chemical weathering intensity and slow physical and chemical weathering rates, yielding low river fluxes of suspended solids, dissolved cations, and clays delivered to the sea. Only upon re-initiation of mountain building in the Oligocene-Miocene (Himalayas, Andes, Rockies) and drifting of these continental blocks to low-latitude locations near the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone and monsoonal climate belts did continental weathering take on modern characteristics of rivers with high suspended loads and incongruent weathering, with much of the cations released during weathering being sequestered into secondary clay minerals. The δ7Li record of the Cenozoic ocean provides another piece of circumstantial evidence in support of the Late Cenozoic Uplift-Weathering Hypothesis.


Froelich, F., and S. Misra. 2014. Was the late Paleocene-early Eocene hot because Earth was flat? An ocean lithium isotope view of mountain building, continental weathering, carbon dioxide, and Earth’s Cenozoic climate. Oceanography 27(1):36–49, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2014.06.


Aller, R.C. 2014. Sedimentary diagenesis, depositional environments, and benthic fluxes. Pp. 293–334 in Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, Treatise on Geochemistry, 2nd ed., The Oceans and Marine Geochemistry, vol. 8. Elsevier, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-095975-7.00611-2.

Alvarez, L.W., W. Alvarez, F. Asaro, and H.V. Michel. 1980. Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. Science 208:1,095–1,108, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.208.4448.1095.

Beerling, D.J., and D.L. Royer. 2011. Convergent Cenozoic CO2 history. Nature Geoscience 4:418–420, https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1186.

Berner, R.A. 1994. GEOCARB II: A revised model of atmospheric CO2 over Phanerozoic time. American Journal of Science 294:56–91, https://doi.org/10.2475/ajs.294.1.56.

Berner, R.A., and A. Kothavla. 2001. GEOCARB III: A revised model of atmospheric CO2 over Phanerozoic time. American Journal of Science 301:182–204, https://doi.org/10.2475/ajs.301.2.182.

Berner, R.A., A.C. Lasaga, and R.M. Garrels. 1983. The carbonate-silicate geochemical cycle and its effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 100 million years. American Journal of Science 283:641–683, https://doi.org/10.2475/ajs.283.7.641.

Bouihol, P., O. Jagoutz, J.M. Hanchar, and F.O. Dudas. 2013. Dating the India-Eurasia collision through arc magmatic records. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 366:163–175, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2013.01.023.

Brewster, N.A. 1980. Cenozoic biogenic silica sedimentation in the Antarctic Ocean. Geological Society of America Bulletin 6:337–347, https://doi.org/10.1130/0016-7606(1980)91<337:CBSSIT>2.0.CO;2.

Chamberlin, T.C. 1899. An attempt to frame a working hypothesis for the cause of glacial periods on an atmospheric basis. Journal of Geology 7:545–584, https://doi.org/10.1086/608449.

Chan, L.H., J.C. Alt, and D.A.H. Teagle. 2002. Lithium and lithium isotope profiles through the upper oceanic crust: A study of seawater-basalt exchange at ODP Sites 504B and 869A. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 201:187–201, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0012-821X(02)00707-0.

Chan, L.H., J.M. Edmond, G. Thompson, and K. Gillis. 1992. Lithium isotopic composition of submarine basalts: Implications for the lithium cycle in the oceans. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 108:151–160, https://doi.org/10.1016/0012-821X(92)90067-6.

Chan, L.H., and M. Kastner. 2000. Lithium isotopic composition of pore fluids and sediments in the Costa Rica subduction zone: Implications for fluid processes and sediment contribution to the arc volcanoes. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 183:275–290, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0012-821X(00)00275-2.

Chan, L.H., W.P. Leeman, and T. Plank. 2006. Lithium isotopic composition of marine sediments. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 7, Q06005, https://doi.org/10.1029/2005GC001202.

Coggon, R.M., D.A.H. Teagle, C.E. Smith-Duque, J.C. Alt, and M.J. Cooper. 2010. Reconstructing past seawater Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca from mid-ocean ridge flank calcium carbonate veins. Science 327:1,114–1,117, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1182252.

Courtillot, V.E., and P.R. Renne. 2003. On the ages of flood basalt events. Comptes Rendus Geoscience 335:113–140, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1631-0713(03)00006-3.

Decarreau, A., N. Vigier, H. Palkova, S. Petit, P. Vieillard, and C. Fontaine. 2012. Partitioning of lithium between smectite and solution: An experimental approach. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 85:314–325, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2012.02.018.

Edmond, J.M. 1992. Himalayan tectonics, weathering processes, and the strontium isotope record in marine limestones. Science 258:1,594–1,597, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.258.5088.1594.

Farrell, J.W., S.C. Clemens, and L.P. Gromet. 1995. Improved chronostratigraphic reference curve of late Neogene seawater 87Sr/86Sr. Geology 23:403–406, https://doi.org/10.1130/0091-7613(1995)023<0403:ICRCOL>2.3.CO;2.

Hathorne, E.C., and R.H. James. 2006. Temporal record of lithium in seawater: A tracer for silicate weathering? Earth and Planetary Science Letters 246:393–406, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2006.04.020.

Hay, W.W., E. Soeding, R.M. DeConto, and C.N. Wold. 2002. The Late Cenozoic uplift – climate change paradox. International Journal of Earth Sciences 91:746–774, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00531-002-0263-1.

Herman, F., D. Seward, P.G. Valla, A. Carter, B. Kohn, S.D. Willett, and T.A. Ehlers. 2013. Worldwide acceleration of mountain erosion under a cooler climate. Nature 19:423–426, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12877.

Hess, J., M.L. Bender, and J.G. Schilling. 1986. Evolution of the ratio of strontium-87 to strontium-86 in seawater from Cretaceous to present. Science 231:979–984, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.231.4741.979.

Hodell, D.A., G.D. Kamenov, E.C. Hathorne, J.C. Zachos, U. Röhl, and T. Westerhold. 2007. Variations in the strontium isotope composition of seawater during the Paleocene and early Eocene from ODP Leg 208 (Walvis Ridge). Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 8, Q09001, https://doi.org/10.1029/2007GC001607.

Hodell, D.A., P.A. Mueller, and J.R. Garrido. 1991. Variations in the strontium isotopic composition of seawater during the Neogene. Geology 19:24–30, https://doi.org/10.1130/0091-7613(1991)019<0024:VITSIC>2.3.CO;2.

Holland, H.D. 1978. The Chemistry of the Atmosphere and Ocean. Wiley, New York, 369 pp.

Huh, Y., L.H. Chan, and J.M. Edmond. 2001. Lithium isotopes as a probe of weathering processes: Orinoco River. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 194:189–199, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0012-821X(01)00523-4.

Huh, Y., L.H. Chan, L. Zhang, and J.M. Edmond. 1998. Lithium and its isotopes in major world rivers: Implications for weathering and the oceanic budget. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 62:2,039–2,051, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0016-7037(98)00126-4.

Kent, D.V., and G. Muttoni. 2008. Equatorial convergence of India and early Cenozoic climate trends. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105:16,065–16,070, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0805382105.

Kisakurek, B., R.H. James, and N.B.W. Harris. 2005. Li and δ7Li in Himalayan rivers: Proxies for silicate weathering? Earth and Planetary Science Letters 237:387–401, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2005.07.019.

Komar, N., R.E. Zeebe, and G.R. Dickens. 2013. Understanding long-term carbon cycle trends: The late Paleocene through the early Eocene. Paleoceanography 28, https://doi.org/10.1002/palo.20060.

Kurtz, A.C., L.R. Kump, M.A. Arthur, J.C. Zachos, and A. Paytan. 2003. Early Cenozoic decoupling of the global carbon and sulfur cycles. Paleoceanography 18, 1090, https://doi.org/10.1029/2003PA000908.

Lefebvre, V., Y. Donnadieu, Y. Gdderis, F. Fluteau, and L. Hubert-Theou. 2013. Was the Antarctic glaciation delayed by a high degassing rate during the early Cenozoic? Earth and Planetary Science Letters 371–372:203–211, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2013.03.049.

Li, G., and H. Elderfield. 2013. Evolution of carbon cycle over the past 100 million years. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 103:11–25, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2012.10.014.

Li, G., and J. West. In press. Increased continental weathering flux through the Cenozoic inferred from the lithium isotope evolution of seawater. Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Mackenzie, F.T., and R.M. Garrels. 1966. Chemical mass balance between rivers and oceans. American Journal of Science 264:507–525, https://doi.org/10.2475/ajs.264.7.507.

Mackin, J.E. 1986. Control of dissolved Al distribution in marine sediments by clay reconstitution reactions: Experimental evidence leading to a unified theory. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 50:207–214, https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-7037(86)90170-5.

Mackin, J.E., and R.C. Aller. 1989. The nearshore marine and estuarine chemistry of dissolved Aluminium and rapid authigenic mineral precipitation. Reviews in Aquatic Science 1:537–554.

Martin, E.E., and J.D. Macdougall. 1991. Seawater Sr isotopes at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 104:166–180, https://doi.org/10.1016/0012-821X(91)90202-S.

Martin, E.E., and H.D. Scher. 2004. Preservation of seawater Sr and Nd isotopes in fossil fish teeth: Bad news and good news. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 220:25–39, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0012-821X(04)00030-5.

Martin, E.E., N.J. Shackleton, J.C. Zachos, and B.P. Flower. 1999. Orbitally-tuned Sr isotope chemostratigraphy for the late middle to late Miocene. Paleoceanography 14:74–83, https://doi.org/10.1029/1998PA900008.

Mead, G.A., and D.A. Hodell. 1995. Controls on the 87Sr/86Sr composition of seawater from the middle Eocene to Oligocene: Hole 689B, Maud Rise, Antarctica. Paleoceanography 10:327–327, https://doi.org/10.1029/94PA03069.

Michalopoulos, P., and R.C. Aller. 1995. Rapid clay mineral formation in Amazon delta sediments: Reverse weathering and oceanic elemental cycles. Science 270:614–616, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.270.5236.614.

Michalopoulos, P., and R.C. Aller. 2004. Early diagenesis of biogenic silica in the Amazon delta: Alteration, authigenic clay formation, and storage. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 68:1,061–1,085, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2003.07.018.

Michalopoulos, P., R.C. Aller, and R.J. Reeder. 2000. Conversion of diatoms to clays during early diagenesis in tropical continental shelf muds. Geology 28:1,095–1,098, https://doi.org/10.1130/0091-7613(2000)28<1095:CODTCD>2.0.CO;2.

Miller, K.G., M.D. Feigenson, J.D. Wright, and B.M. Clement. 1991. Miocene isotope reference section, Deep Sea Drilling Project Site 608: An evaluation of isotope and biostratigraphic resolution. Paleoceanography 6:33–52, https://doi.org/10.1029/90PA01941.

Millot, R., N. Vigier, and J. Gaillardet. 2010. Behaviour of lithium and its isotopes during weathering in the Mackenzie Basin, Canada. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 74:3,897–3,912, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2010.04.025.

Misra, S., and P.N. Froelich. 2012. Lithium isotope history of Cenozoic seawater: Changes in silicate weathering and reverse weathering. Science 335:818–823, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1214697.

Molnar, P. 2004. Late Cenozoic increase in accumulation rates of terrestrial sediment. Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences 32:67–89, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.earth.32.091003.143456.

Pälike, H., M.W. Lyle, H. Nishi, I. Raffi, A. Ridgewell, K. Gamage, A. Klaus, G. Acton, L. Anderson, J. Backman, and others. 2012. A Cenozoic record of the equatorial Pacific carbonate compensation depth. Nature 488:609–614, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11360.

Palmer, M.R., and J.M. Edmond. 1989. The strontium isotope budget of the modern ocean. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 92:11–26, https://doi.org/10.1016/0012-821X(89)90017-4.

Palmer, M.R., and J.M. Edmond. 1992. Controls over the strontium isotope composition of river water. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 56:2,099–2,111, https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-7037(92)90332-D.

Peizhen, Z., P. Molnar, and W.R. Dowes. 2001. Increased sedimentation rates and grain sizes 2–4 Myr ago due to the influence of climate change on erosion rates. Nature 410:891–897, https://doi.org/10.1038/35073504.

Pogge von Strandmann, P.A.E., K.W. Burton, R.H. James, P. van Calsteren, and S.R. Gíslason. 2006. Riverine behaviour of uranium and lithium isotopes in an actively glaciated basaltic terrain. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 251:134–147, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2006.09.001.

Pogge von Strandmann, P.A.E., R.H. James, P. van Calsteren, and S.R. Gíslason. 2008. Lithium, magnesium and uranium isotope behaviour in the estuarine environment of basaltic islands. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 274:462–471, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2008.07.041.

Rausch, S., F. Bohm, W. Back, A. Kluget, and A. Eisenhauer. 2013. Calcium carbonate veins in ocean crust record a three-fold increase of seawater Mg/Ca in the past 30 million years. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 362:215–224, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2012.12.005.

Raymo, M.E. 1991. Geochemical evidence supporting T.C. Chamberlin’s theory of glaciation. Geology 19:344–347, https://doi.org/10.1130/0091-7613(1991)019<0344:GESTCC>2.3.CO;2.

Raymo, M.E., and W.F. Ruddiman. 1992. Tectonic forcing of late Cenozoic climate. Nature 359:117–122, https://doi.org/10.1038/359117a0.

Raymo, M.E., W.F. Ruddiman, and P.N. Froelich. 1988. Influence of late Cenozoic mountain building on ocean geochemical cycles. Geology 16:649–653, https://doi.org/10.1130/0091-7613(1988)016<0649:IOLCMB>2.3.CO;2.

Reagan, M.K., W.C. McClelland, G. Girard, K.R. Goff, D.W. Peate, Y. Ohara, and R.J. Stern. 2013. The geology of the southern Mariana fore-arc crust: Implications for the scale of Eocene volcanism in the western Pacific. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 380:41–51, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2013.08.013.

Rowley, D.B. 2002. Rate of plate creation and destruction: 180 Ma to present. Geological Society of America Bulletin 114:927–933, https://doi.org/10.1130/0016-7606(2002)114<0927:ROPCAD>2.0.CO;2.

Ruddiman, W.F., M.E. Raymo, W.L. Prell, and J.E. Kutzback. 1997. The uplift-climate connections: A synthesis. Pp. 363–397 in Tectonic Uplift and Climate Change. W.F. Ruddiman, ed., Plenum, New York.

Sayles, F.L. 1979. The composition and diagenesis of interstitial solutions: Part I. Fluxes across the seawater-sediment interface in the Atlantic Ocean. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 43:527–545, https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-7037(79)90163-7.

Sayles, F.L. 1981. The composition and diagenesis of interstitial solutions: Part II. Fluxes and diagenesis at the water-sediment interface in the high latitude North and South Atlantic. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 45:1,061–1,086, https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-7037(81)90132-0.

Sluijs, A., S. Schouten, M. Pagani, M. Woltering, H. Brinkhuis, J.S. Sinninghe Damste, G.R. Dickens, M. Huber, G.-J. Reichart, R. Stein, and others. 2006. Subtropical Arctic Ocean temperatures during the Paleocene/Eocene thermal maximum. Nature 441:610–613, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04668.

Sluijs, A., R.E. Zeebe, P.K. Bijl, and S.W. Bohaty. 2013. A middle Eocene carbon cycle conundrum. Nature Geoscience 6:429–434, https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1807.

Stallard, R.F., and J.M. Edmond. 1981. Geochemistry of the Amazon: Part 1. Precipitation chemistry and the marine contribution to the dissolved load at the time of peak discharge. Journal of Geophysical Research 86:9,844–9,858, https://doi.org/10.1029/JC086iC10p09844.

Stallard, R.F., and J.M. Edmond. 1983. Geochemistry of the Amazon: Part 2. The influence of geology and weathering environment on the dissolved load. Journal of Geophysical Research 88:9,671–9,688, https://doi.org/10.1029/JC088iC14p09671.

Stallard, R.F., and J.M. Edmond. 1987. Geochemistry of the Amazon: Part 3. Weathering chemistry and limits to dissolved inputs. Journal of Geophysical Research 92:8,293–8,302, https://doi.org/10.1029/JC092iC08p08293.

Stoffyn-Egli, P., and F.T. Mackenzie. 1984. Mass balance of dissolved lithium in the oceans. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 48:859–872, https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-7037(84)90107-8.

Svensen, H., S. Planke, A. Maltke-Sorenssen, B. Jamtveit, T.R. Miltebest, and S.S. Eiden. 2004. Release of methane from a volcanic basin as a mechanism for initial Eocene global warming. Nature 429:542–545, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02566.

Urey, H.C., and S.A. Korff. 1952. The planets: Their origin and development. Physics Today 5:12.

Vigier, N., A. Decarreau, R. Millot, J. Carignan, S. Petit, and C. France-Lanord. 2006. Quantifying the isotopic fractionation of lithium during clay formation at various temperatures. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 70:A673, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2006.06.1258.

Vigier, N., A. Decarreau, R. Millot, J. Carignan, S. Petit, and C. France-Lanord. 2008. Quantifying Li isotope fractionation during smectite formation and implications for the Li cycle. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 72:780–792, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2007.11.011.

Vigier, N., S.R. Gislason, K.W. Burton, R. Millot, and F. Mokadem. 2009. The relationship between riverine lithium isotope composition and silicate weathering rates in Iceland. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 287:434–441, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2009.08.026.

Walker, J.C.G., P.B. Hays, and J.F. Kasting. 1981. A negative feedback mechanism for the long-term stabilization of Earth’s surface temperature. Journal of Geophysical Research 86:9,776–9,782, https://doi.org/10.1029/JC086iC10p09776.

West, A.J., A. Galy, and M. Bickle. 2005. Tectonic and climatic controls on silicate weathering. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 235:211–228, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2005.03.020.

Wimpenny, J., R.H. James, K.W. Burton, A. Gannou, F. Mokadem, and S.R. Gíslason. 2010. Glacial effects on weathering processes: New insights from the elemental and lithium isotopic composition of West Greenland rivers. Earth and Planetary Science Letter 290:427–437, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2009.12.042.

Zachos, J.C., G.R. Dickens, and R.E. Zeebe. 2008. An early Cenozoic perspective on greenhouse warming and carbon-cycle dynamics. Nature 451:279–283, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature06588.

Zachos, J.C., M. Pagani, L. Sloan, E. Thomas, and K. Billups. 2001. Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present. Science 292:686, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1059412.

Zachos, J.C., U. Rohl, S.A. Schellenberg, A. Sluijs, D.A. Hodell, D.C. Kelly, E. Thomas, M. Nicolo, I. Raffi, L.J. Lourens, and others. 2005. Rapid acidification of the ocean during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Science 308:1,611–1,615, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1109004.

Zeebe, R.E. 2013. What caused the long duration of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum? Paleoceanography 3:440–452, https://doi.org/10.1002/palo.20039.

Copyright & Usage

This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.