Earth scientist James Zachos honored for climate change research

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Climate Change category recognizes Zachos and fellow paleoclimatologist Ellen Thomas of Yale University

James Zachos
James Zachos (photo by Gus Figuerola)
Ellen Thomas
Ellen Thomas (photo by Gus Figuerola)

James Zachos, distinguished professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, has been honored by the BBVA Foundation with the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Climate Change category.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognize and reward world-class research and artistic creation, prizing contributions of singular impact for their originality and significance.

Zachos and Ellen Thomas, a climate scientist at Yale University and Wesleyan University, were recognized in the 15th edition of the awards “for their seminal contributions to the identification of a major natural event in the fossil record that provides a compelling analog for anthropogenic climate change.”

In the 1990s, Zachos and Thomas uncovered an anomalous episode in the planet’s history in which massive quantities of carbon dioxide and methane were released into the atmosphere and global temperatures rose by between 5 and 6ºC. The event, whose possible origin was volcanic activity, turned the oceans more acidic and unleashed one of the biggest extinctions of deep-sea fauna in Earth’s history.

This interval, which occurred 56 million years ago, is now known as the Paleo-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), and its associated greenhouse gas emissions, and their consequences, are comparable to today’s climate change caused by fossil fuel combustion, lending weight to the numerical models currently in use to predict future climate evolution.

“Zachos and Thomas’ research has laid the foundation for the climate change prediction models being applied today,” explained the nominator of the two new laureates, Laia Alegret, professor of paleontology at the University of Zaragoza and a member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences.

The PETM is considered the best geological analog for modern climate change. The similarities in carbon emissions, rising temperatures and ocean acidification, along with the detailed extent to which the event is known, make it an ideal testing ground for climate predictions derived from numerical models, to see if they hold up. It is in this sense a kind of “natural experiment” that has served to validate and bound the predictive models currently in use, Zachos said.

A history of the planet’s climate

The discovery of the PETM had its beginnings in a 1987 drilling expedition to the Antarctic Ocean, with Thomas among its crew. As an expert in micropaleontology, it was her job to analyze the sediment samples obtained in search of benthic foraminifera, microscopic organisms that live on the ocean floor.

Because of how they are deposited, sediments are a kind of planetary history book, their deepest layers representing the most distant epochs. On coming to the layer marking the boundary between the Paleocene and Eocene, Thomas observed a series of very large changes in these deep-sea organisms.

“It was not at all what I had expected,” she said. “I was looking for relatively minor changes, because the deep ocean is the planet’s largest habitat and unlikely to change over short time scales.”

But what she saw in the samples from that layer was a massive extinction so entirely at odds with such a stable environment that it had to be caused by a dramatic change operating at the global scale. Immediately the whole expedition crew got down to analyzing the shells’ chemical composition to ascertain what environmental conditions they had been formed in, primarily water temperature and acidity.

Thomas observed that the mass extinction had occurred at a time of pronounced global warming. “It was the largest extinction of deep-sea fauna within the last 90 million years,” Alegret explains.

Although the extinction event had been documented in earlier scientific papers, Thomas was the first to study it in detail and, crucially, to attribute its origin to a global change at the boundary of the Paleocene and Eocene.

Not long after, Zachos provided the final confirmation of this momentous upheaval. When analyzing terrestrial sediments obtained in Wyoming, he observed certain changes in the nature of the carbon they contained occurring just at the Paleocene-Eocene limit. One was a marked perturbation in the carbon-13 isotope, suggesting that large quantities of this element had been released into the atmosphere over extremely short geological time scales.

“Suddenly all the pieces of the jigsaw started to fall into place, and they were also consistent with the greenhouse effect theory,” Zachos said.

“What Thomas had found in the deep sea, Zachos was now observing on land at thousands of kilometers distance,” added Laia Alegret. “This was proof that what they were looking at was an event unfolding on a planetary scale, affecting not just terrestrial systems but also the ocean floor and surface.”

Since then, Zachos and Thomas have collaborated to unravel Earth’s climatic variations throughout geological history. In 2001 they published a paper in Science that featured the most complete temperature curve for the last 65 million years, known as the “Zachos curve.” In all this time, the PETM stands out as the single biggest warming event on record. And other similar though less intense warming events also emerged, for which researchers coined the term “hyperthermals.”

Understanding climate change

The above Science paper currently ranks among the most highly cited in geosciences. The identification of other hyperthermal intervals helped round out the natural experiment facilitated by the PETM, enabling the identification of warming events of differing magnitude, greenhouse gas emissions at different rates, and the multiple impacts ensuing from each episode. “It opened a new line of research that is now being pursued by hundreds of scientists and has won a prominent place in the best scientific journals,” Alegret said.

The historical knowledge provided by Zachos and Thomas has been fed back into predictive models for the impact of present-day climate change to test the soundness of their forecasts. “We have been able to confirm that the greenhouse effect theory is essentially correct, and this has made us more confident about our ability to predict future climate,” Zachos said.

The droughts and severe rainfall episodes that are part of climate change as we are currently experiencing it reflect changes in the hydrologic cycle which have also been documented during the PETM. Not only that, PETM studies have confirmed that it takes tens of thousands of years for excess carbon in the atmosphere to be sequestered by natural processes.

Zachos said he would like to see the process of carbon sequestration speeded up by recourse to technologies that capture atmospheric CO2 so it can be buried where it will not produce any greenhouse effect. Already carbon is being injected into the Earth’s crust and some propose doing the same in the ocean, while plans have been mooted to accelerate the decomposition of rocks or even to pulverize them for worldwide use as a fertilizing agent. “All these actions, taken together, could help remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a relatively fast rate,” he said.

A warning for the future

The mass extinction brought about by the PETM highlights biodiversity declines as among the most devastating consequences of climate change. “The PETM records show us that in basins like the Mediterranean, oxygen levels fell so sharply that many organisms could not survive, and this of course led to a loss of marine biodiversity,” Thomas said.

Although there is no scientific consensus on what caused this rapid and massive release of greenhouse gases, recent research suggests that volcanic activity in the North Atlantic may have triggered a chain reaction. In addition to the greenhouse effect, the gases released would have altered the oceanic currents, which in turn would have produced a small warming of the oceans and destabilized the permafrost (frozen ground) and the methane hydrates located below the seabed.

The collapsing of these gas reservoirs would have released yet more carbon into the atmosphere, ramping up the both the greenhouse effect and the disruption of ocean currents. Estimates point to an emissions total of between 2,000 and 5,000 gigatonnes of carbon (one gigatonne being a billion metric tons). And yet the current rate of emissions driven by human industrial activity over the course of two centuries is around ten times higher, according to Zachos.

“If we compare this with the time scale of today’s anthropogenic warming, which represents the tiniest fraction of Earth’s history, less than two centuries since the Second Industrial Revolution, it is clear that levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are already sky high. Past analogs, like the PETM, warn us that we are set on what threatens to be a very dangerous path,” said Miquel Canals, Director of the Department of Earth and Ocean Dynamics at the University of Barcelona, and a member of the award committee.

The urgency of acting now

Asked whether today’s human-induced greenhouse effect could end up triggering a warming event as extreme as that suffered during the PETM, Zachos said “it could easily happen” if we go on burning fossil fuels and sticking to the familiar but pernicious routine of “business as usual.” However, he said we still have time to remedy the situation, or at least to avert its worst consequences: “We could prevent greater warming by reducing carbon emissions, switching to renewable energies as we are now doing in a big way. But the longer we take, the more difficult it will be to keep carbon dioxide levels below those that would give us 4 or 5ºC of warming.”

Zachos warned that certain impacts are “probably unavoidable.” For example, he said, “we are already committed to a meter or two of sea-level rise even if we could cut carbon emissions immediately.” Nonetheless, he continued, “we still have the opportunity to prevent the worst-case scenarios if we can reverse or reduce carbon emissions. Otherwise we may be talking about sea-level rise on the order of 10 to 15 meters.”

Thomas, meanwhile, admits to feeling “fairly pessimistic” about stopping global warming from causing grave harm to the human population. “Regarding sea level, for example, I am pretty much convinced that we have underestimated the rate of increase, and will see serious effects in populated areas, like my own country of birth, the Netherlands, where large expanses may end up under water, along with large parts of New York and Florida,” she said. “People will have no choice but to emigrate.”

Thomas is especially concerned about the impacts of warming on the water cycle, as documented for the PETM, and how they may affect agriculture: “Many zones will dry up meaning they will no longer be suitable for staple food crops,” she said. “Global warming is here. I live in Connecticut, and at this time of year, early January, it usually snows and we have freezing every night, but that is not happening this year, it has hardly snowed at all. There was a day not long ago when it was actually warmer in Alaska than in Texas, and that is absolutely abnormal, but it is exactly what our models are predicting from the effects of global warming in the Arctic, that you get these huge swings between hot and cold.”

“The reality,” she concludes, “is that the anti-climate change measures taken to date are wholly insufficient. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but I do think we are in serious trouble, not for the planet—which will go on without us—but for ourselves. And we are going to have to change things very, very rapidly.”

James Zachos holds B.S. degrees in geology and economics from the State University of New York, an M.S. in geology from the University of South Carolina, and a Ph.D. in geological oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. He joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 1992, where he has served as chair of the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences and is currently a distinguished professor and holder of the Ida Benson Lynn Chair of Ocean Health.

Ellen Thomas holds a B.Sc. in Earth sciences from the University of Utrecht (Netherlands), where she went on to earn an M.Sc. followed by a PhD in 1979. Except for brief stays in the U.K., Italy, and Japan, since 1979 she has spent her academic life in the United States, holding simultaneous appointments for the past three decades at two Connecticut universities: Yale University, in New Haven, where she has been a senior research scientist in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences since 2005; and Wesleyan University, in Middletown, where she is currently Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrated Sciences, Emerita.