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The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the causes and effects of the highest global temperatures in the last 65m years, when Arctic sea surfaces reached up to 23 C for c100,000 years.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the high temperatures that marked the end of the Paleocene and start of the Eocene periods, about 50m years ago. Over c1000 years, global temperatures rose more than 5 C on average and stayed that way for c100,000 years more, with the surface of seas in the Arctic being as warm as those in the subtropics. There were widespread extinctions, changes in ocean currents, and there was much less oxygen in the sea depths. The rise has been attributed to an increase of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, though it is not yet known conclusively what the source of those gases was. One theory is that a rise in carbon dioxide, perhaps from volcanoes, warmed up the globe enough for warm water to reach the bottom of the oceans and so release methane from frozen crystals in the sea bed. The higher the temperature rose and the longer the water was warm, the more methane was released. Scientists have been studying a range of sources from this long period, from ice samples to fossils, to try to understand more about possible causes.


Dame Jane Francis
Professor of Palaeoclimatology at the British Antarctic Survey

Mark Maslin
Professor of Palaeoclimatology at University College London


Tracy Aze
Lecturer in Marine Micropaleontology at the University of Leeds

Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Available now

50 minutes

Last on

Thu 16 Mar 2017 21:30



Role Contributor
Presenter Melvyn Bragg
Interviewed Guest Jane Francis
Interviewed Guest Mark Maslin
Interviewed Guest Tracy Aze
Producer Simon Tillotson


  • Thu 16 Mar 2017 09:00
  • Thu 16 Mar 2017 21:30

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