NOAA features temperature chart showing Earth’s history much hotter than today – Past temps ‘Much too warm for ice sheets or perennial sea ice’

By: - Climate DepotJanuary 30, 2021 1:46 PM

What’s the hottest Earth’s ever been?

June 18, 2020
The tropical Arctic

A Smithsonian Institution project has tried to reconstruct temperatures for the Phanerozoic Eon, or roughly the last half a billion years. Preliminary results released in 2019 showed warm temperatures dominating most of that time, with global temperatures repeatedly rising above 80°F and even 90°F—much too warm for ice sheets or perennial sea ice. About 250 million years ago, around the equator of the supercontinent Pangea, it was even too hot for peat swamps!

A graph showing Earth's surface temperature over the past half a billion years

Preliminary results from a Smithsonian Institution project led by Scott Wing and Brian Huber, showing Earth’s average surface temperature over the past 500 million years.  For most of the time, global temperatures appear to have been too warm (red portions of line) for persistent polar ice caps. The most recent 50 million years are an exception. Image adapted from Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Geologists and paleontologists have found that, in the last 100 million years, global temperatures have peaked twice. One spike was the Cretaceous Hot Greenhouse roughly 92 million years ago, about 25 million years before Earth’s last dinosaurs went extinct. Widespread volcanic activity may have boosted atmospheric carbon dioxide. Temperatures were so high that champsosaurs (crocodile-like reptiles) lived as far north as the Canadian Arctic, and warm-temperature forests thrived near the South Pole.

Another hothouse period was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) about 55-56 million years ago. Though not quite as hot as the Cretaceous hothouse, the PETM brought rapidly rising temperatures. During much of the Paleocene and early Eocene, the poles were free of ice caps, and palm trees and crocodiles lived above the Arctic Circle.

During the PETM, (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum – about 56 million years ago) the global mean temperature appears to have risen by as much as 5-8°C (9-14°F) to an average temperature as high as 73°F. (Again, today’s global average is shy of 60°F.) At roughly the same time, paleoclimate data like fossilized phytoplankton and ocean sediments record a massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, at least doubling or possibly even quadrupling the background concentrations.

Deep ocean temperatures were generally high throughout the Paleocene and Eocene, with a particularly warm spike at the boundary between the two geological epochs around 56 million years ago. Temperatures in the distant past are inferred from proxies (oxygen isotope ratios from fossil foraminifera). “Q” stands of Quarternary. Graph by Hunter Allen and Michon Scott, using data from the NOAA National Climatic Data Center, courtesy Carrie Morrill.

It is still uncertain where all the carbon dioxide came from and what the exact sequence of events was. Scientists have considered the drying up of large inland seas, volcanic activity, thawing permafrost, release of methane from warming ocean sediments, huge wildfires, and even—briefly—a comet.