The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Research project: Descent into the Icehouse

Currently Active: 

This project is part of the NERC directed research programme, “Long-term Co-evolution of Life and the Planet”, and addresses the transition of Earth’s climate from “greenhouse” warmth to “icehouse” glaciation during the early Cenozoic era, specifically from around 50 to 34 million year ago. As this transition involved changes in both the physical and biogeochemical state of the Earth, we will use a combination of laboratory measurements and computer modelling to unravel the sequence of events.

Project Overview

Transitions between greenhouse and icehouse states tend to be rapid, with dramatic consequences for life on Earth. The most recent of these fundamental climate transitions began around 50 million years ago and culminated at ~34 million years ago at the Eocene/Oligocene boundary with the rapid growth of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Due to the nature of the rock record, this most recent transition is the best studied and most well documented of the greenhouse to icehouse switches, but nonetheless the processes responsible are still much debated. The most popular hypothesis is that it was caused by a decline in the atmospheric CO2 - an important greenhouse gas. Although it has been recently confirmed that the final rapid switch at the Eocene/Oligocene boundary was associated with a dramatic decline in CO2, it has also been suggested that CO2 was not the main driver of the overall transition. A number of potential candidates fall broadly into two camps - either this climate transition was driven purely by processes internal to the Earth (such as uplift of the Himalaya, ocean circulation, or volcanic outgassing of CO2) or it involved some, or all, aspects of the Earth surface, including biology, that can serve to cause and amplify change in a number of important ways. By burning fossil fuels, CO2 concentrations may reach values typical of the greenhouse world of the Eocene by the end of this century. It is therefore becoming imperative to better understand the role of CO2 in driving these natural cycles of Earth's climate, and consequently, the principal aim of this proposal is to determine the main driver of this most recent and dramatic switch in climate state.

We will achieve this using a multidisciplinary approach that has aspects of both new data collection and computer modelling. The new data we will generate will involve revised estimates of CO2 concentrations and globally widespread estimates of ocean temperature, environmental parameters that cannot be directly determined for the past. We will study the fossil remains of sea-dwelling microscopic organisms, the foraminifers and coccolithophorids. These organisms are very abundant in the mud on the floor of the oceans, providing an invaluable archive of past ocean climate data, and by looking at the chemical composition of their shells or the organic compounds they biosynthesise we can determine how warm or how acidic the ocean was. And from such parameters, we can also deduce how much CO2 was in their environment. Armed with this improved understanding of how the climate system evolved leading up to the greenhouse-icehouse transition we can better investigate the natural processes that caused the change. Given the complex nature of the climate system this is best done with a variety of sophisticated computer modelling approaches. Crucially, it is only by guiding these computer simulations with the new data we have generated that we can isolate which of the myriad of potential processes was responsible for triggering this fundamental shift in climate and better determine how they impacted the evolution of life.

Period of Award: May2011 - April 2014

Dates: May 2011 - April 2014

Find out more at

Funding agency: NERC (Natural Environment Research Council). Link to NERC research programme here.

PI: Dr Gavin Foster

Co-I's: Dr Robert Marsh, Dr Toby Tyrrell, Dr Sam Gibbs, Dr Andy Milton, Professor Andy Purvis, Dr Tom Dunkley-Jones, Dr Dan Lunt, Professor Richard Pancost, Professor Paul Pearson, Dr Carrie Lear, Dr Phil Sexton

PDRA: Dr Eleni Anagnostou, Dr Eleanor John (Cardiff)

PhDs and Other Opportunities


Related research groups

Physical Oceanography
Palaeoceanography and Palaeoclimate


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