Changes in the hydrological cycle in tropical East Africa during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

Luke Handley, Aoife O'Halloran, Paul N. Pearson, Elizabeth Hawkins, Christopher J. Nicholas, Stefan Schouten, Ian K. McMillan, Richard D. Pancost*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), at ca. 55.8Ma, is one of the most studied instances of past greenhouse gas-induced global warming. As such, it provides a rich opportunity to examine the impact of such global change on local climates. The effects of increased continental and sea surface temperatures on local precipitation and humidity during the PETM remain poorly constrained and studies reveal complex, regional differences; whilst some localities appear to experience a net increase in humidity, others exhibit the opposite. Crucially, there are few records of hydrological change from tropical regions. Recent onshore drilling expeditions in Tanzania have yielded expanded sedimentary sections, deposited in a marine environment, that span much of the Late Cretaceous and Paleogene and show exceptionally good preservation of both calcareous microfossils and organic matter. The PETM interval has previously been constrained by both biostratigraphy and carbon isotopic records and spans ca. 7m of section. Lipid distributions, including various terrestrial, marine and bacterial biomarkers and their hydrogen isotopic compositions, as well as mineralogy, were used to examine East African vegetation and hydrological responses to the global change occurring at the PETM. Although total organic carbon contents decrease, the concentrations of both higher plant (n-alkanes, n-alkanoic acids) and soil bacterial (glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers) biomarkers increase dramatically at the onset of the PETM negative carbon isotope excursion (CIE), suggesting an increased discharge of fluvial sedimentary organic matter. Similarly, mineralogical indicators of terrestrial input - including Ti/Al and Si/Al ratios, quartz contents and, notably, the proportion of kaolinite - also increase at the onset of the CIE. However, higher plant leaf wax n-alkanes (C 27, C 29 and C 31) become more deuterium-enriched throughout the same interval, suggesting a more arid and/or hotter, rather than a more humid, environment. This evidence collectively suggests an East African early PETM climate characterised by overall hot and arid conditions punctuated by intense, perhaps seasonal, precipitation events. These data match observations from other locations at mid-latitudes, suggesting that the humid climate often suggested for the PETM was not globally widespread.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10-21
Number of pages12
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2012


  • Aridity
  • Biomarkers
  • Hydrogen isotopes
  • Kaolinite
  • Precipitation
  • Weathering


Dive into the research topics of 'Changes in the hydrological cycle in tropical East Africa during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this