What’s the hottest Earth’s ever been?
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!
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.
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.
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— 𝔻𝕒𝕨𝕟𝕋𝕁𝟡𝟘™ 🇵🇭💖🇨🇦 Climate of Dawn (@DawnTJ90) January 29, 2021