Carbon Burn-Down in a Greenhouse World: Wildfires and Soil Carbon Loss across the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)

Monday, 15 December 2014
Elizabeth H Denis1, Brady Foreman2, Bianca Maibauer3, Gabriel J Bowen3, Margaret E Collinson4, Claire Belcher5 and Katherine H Freeman1, (1)Pennsylvania State University Main Campus, University Park, PA, United States, (2)University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, United States, (3)University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, United States, (4)Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, United Kingdom, (5)University of Exeter, Exeter, United Kingdom
Projections for Earth’s future suggest that wildfire activity will increase with global warming, but the factors controlling fire are complex. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was a geologically abrupt global warming event that had profound effects on vegetation and hydrologic patterns and serves as an analog for modern climate change. Carbon burn-down (i.e., oxidation of organic matter) could amplify feedbacks with warming through release of carbon to the atmosphere. To assess relationships between climate, fire and soil respiration, we evaluated biomarkers, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), charcoal and total organic carbon (TOC) for three paleo-floodplain depositional sites in the Western USA. Samples were selected from Bighorn Basin Coring Project cores in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming (at Basin Substation and Polecat Bench) and from an outcrop section in the Piceance Basin, Colorado.

In general, the Paleocene had higher PAH concentrations (μg/g TOC) than the Eocene, but there was no clear trend during the onset (~20 kyr) or through the PETM (~200 kyr). Median %TOC decreased through the PETM, then increased in the Eocene, but did not return to Paleocene values. At Basin Substation, PAH concentrations decreased by an order of magnitude during the PETM interval, concurrent with a decline in TOC and charcoal. High molecular weight (MW) PAHs tend to dominate, especially in low TOC samples; this suggests preferential loss of low MW PAHs, which are relatively more susceptible to post-depositional processes. Lithology, TOC and the relative proportion of PAHs help discern the signals of carbon oxidation, by fire and by soil respiration.

Despite climate conditions that tend to promote fire, there is no evidence for increased fires at the onset or throughout the PETM. Biomarker and petrographic data suggest decreased organic carbon preservation, including loss of refractory carbon, at Basin Substation during the PETM. This suggests soil carbon loss, possibly due to higher rates of organic matter decay associated with a hotter and more seasonal climate during the PETM. We propose that higher carbon burn-down, due to accelerated decay rates, outpaced terrestrial productivity during the hyperthermal event, which hindered soil carbon sequestration and enhanced the atmospheric greenhouse.