The Azolla event is a name given to the final stage of the worldwide flourishing of temperate or tropical life. It occurred in the middle of the Eocene epoch, perhaps 49 million years ago (49 Ma). It marked the end of the Hothouse Earth, hot enough for turtles and palm trees to prosper at both of the poles, and the beginning of the Icehouse Earth, the condition we live in. During the time of the Azolla Event, blooms of the freshwater fern Azolla are thought to have spread across the surface of the Arctic Ocean. After their remains sank to the stagnant and anaerobic sea floor, they were incorporated into the ocean floor sediment. Global warming proponents say that the resulting draw-down of atmospheric carbon dioxide helped transform the planet from a "greenhouse Earth" state, to the icehouse Earth it has been ever since. Before the end of the Azolla Event there was no ice at either pole, Antarctica had a temperate or even tropic climate, and the entire Earth was covered with life.
Geological evidence of the azolla event
In sedimentary layers throughout the Arctic basin, a geological unit reaching at least 8 m in thickness is discernible. The bottom of the longest sample-drill core was not recovered, but it may have reached 20 m+ This unit consists of alternating layers; siliceous clastic layers representing the background sedimentation of planktonic organisms, usual to marine sediments, switched with millimetre-thick laminations comprising partially-fossilised Azolla matter. This organic matter can also be detected in the form of a gamma radiation spike that has been noted throughout the Arctic basin, making the event a useful aid in lining up cores drilled at different locations. Palynological controls and calibration with the high-resolution geomagnetic reversal record allows the duration of the event to be estimated at 800,000 years. The event coincides with a catastrophic decline in carbon dioxide levels, which fell from 3500 ppm in the early Eocene to 650 ppm during this event. The current CO2 level is even lower at 400 ppm.
Azolla has been called a "super-plant" as it can draw down as much as a tonne of nitrogen per acre per year (0.25 kg/m²/yr); this is matched by 6 tonnes per acre of carbon drawdown (1.5 kg/m²/yr). Its ability to use atmospheric nitrogen for growth means that the main limit to its growth is usually the availability of phosphorus: carbon, nitrogen and sulphur being three of the key elements of proteins, and phosphorus being required for DNA, RNA and in energy metabolism. The plant can grow at great speed in favourable conditions – modest warmth and 20 hours of sunlight, both of which were in evidence at the poles during the early Eocene – and can double its biomass over two to three days in such a climate.
Conditions encouraging the event
During the early Eocene, the continental configuration was such that the Arctic sea was almost entirely cut off from the wider oceans. This meant that mixing — provided today by deep water currents such as the Gulf Stream — did not occur, leading to a stratified water column resembling today's Black Sea. High temperatures and winds led to high evaporation, increasing the density of the ocean, and — through an increase in rainfall — high discharge from rivers which fed the basin. This low-density freshwater formed a nepheloid layer, floating on the surface of the dense sea. Even a few centimetres of fresh water would be enough to allow colonization by Azolla; further, this river water would be rich in minerals such as phosphorus, which it would accumulate from mud and rocks it interacted with as it crossed the continents. To further aid the growth of the plant, concentrations of carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere are known to have been high at this time.
Blooms alone are not enough to have any geological impact; to permanently draw down CO2 the carbon must be sequestered by the plants being buried and the remains rendered inaccessible to decomposing organisms. The anoxic bottom of the Arctic basin, a result of the stratified water column, could have permittedt this. The anoxic environment inhibits the activity of decomposing organisms and allows the plants to sit unrotted until they are buried by sediment and turned into fossils.
With 800,000 years of Azolla bloom episodes and a 4,000,000 km² basin to cover, even by very conservative estimates more than enough carbon could be sequestered by plant burial to account for the observed 80% drop in CO2 by this one phenomenon alone. Other factors almost certainly played a role. This drop initiated the switch from a greenhouse to the current icehouse Earth; the Arctic cooled from an average sea-surface temperature of 13 °C to today's −9 °C, and the rest of the globe underwent a similar change. For perhaps the first time in its history, the planet had ice caps at both of its poles. A geologically rapid decrease in temperature between 49 and 47 million years ago, around the Azolla event, is evident: dropstones — which are taken as evidence for the presence of glaciers — are common in Arctic sediments thereafter. This is set against a backdrop of gradual, long-term cooling: it is not until 15 million years ago that evidence for widespread northern polar freezing is common.
While a verdant Arctic Ocean is a viable working model, skeptical scientists point out that it would be possible for Azolla colonies in river deltas or freshwater lagoons to be swept into the Arctic Ocean by strong currents, removing the necessity for a freshwater layer.
Much of the current interest in oil exploration in the Arctic regions is directed towards the Azolla deposits. The burial of large amounts of organic material provides the source rock for oil, so given the right thermal history, the preserved Azolla blooms might have been converted to oil or gas. A research team has been set up in the Netherlands devoted to Azolla. Lua error in ...extensions/Scribunto/engines/LuaCommon/lualib/mwInit.lua at line 17: bad argument #1 to 'old_pairs' (table expected, got nil).
- Brinkhuis H, Schouten S, Collinson ME, Sluijs A, Sinninghe Damsté JS, Dickens GR, Huber M, Cronin TM, Onodera J, Takahashi K, Bujak JP, Stein R, van der Burgh J, Eldrett JS, Harding IC, Lotter AF, Sangiorgi F, van Konijnenburg-van Cittert H, de Leeuw JW, Matthiessen J, Backman J, Moran K (2006). "Episodic fresh surface waters in the Eocene Arctic Ocean". Nature. 441 (7093): 606–609. PMID 16752440. doi:10.1038/nature04692.
- Waddell, L.M.; Moore, T.C. (2006). "Salinity of the Early and Middle Eocene Arctic Ocean From Oxygen Isotope Analysis of Fish Bone Carbonate". American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2006, abstract# OS53B-1097. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
- Pearson, P.N.; Palmer, M.R. (2000). "Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 60 million years" (PDF). Nature. 406 (6797): 695–699. PMID 10963587. doi:10.1038/35021000. Retrieved 2008-03-14.
- Belnap, J. (2002). "Nitrogen fixation in biological soil crusts from southeast Utah, USA" (PDF). Biology and Fertility of Soils. 35 (2): 128–135. doi:10.1007/s00374-002-0452-x. Retrieved 2007-10-17.
- Stein, R. (2006). "The Paleocene-Eocene ("Greenhouse") Arctic Ocean paleoenvironment: Implications from organic-carbon and biomarker records (IODP-ACEX Expedition 302)" (abstract). Geophysical Research Abstracts. 8: 06718. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
- Greenwood, D.R., Basinger, J.F. and Smith, R.Y. 2010. How wet was the Arctic Eocene rainforest? Estimates of precipitation from Paleogene Arctic macrofloras. Geology, 38(1): 15 - 18.. doi:10.1130/G30218.1
- Gleason, J.D.; Thomas, D.T.; Moore, T.C.; Blum, J.D.; Owen, R.M. (2007). "Water column structure of the Eocene Arctic Ocean from Nd-Sr isotope proxies in fossil fish debris" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-11-03.
The Sr-Nd isotopic record is [...] indicative of a poorly mixed ocean and highly stratified water column with anoxic bottom waters. A stable, "fresh" water upper layer was likely a pervasive feature of the Eocene Arctic Ocean
- It is almost certainly the first time the planet had bipolar glaciation during the Phanerozoic; whether or not it was present during the Neoproterozoic "Snowball earth" is a matter of debate.
- Tim Appenzeller (May 2005). "Great green north". National Geographic.
- ANDREW C. REVKIN (2004-11-20). "Under all that ice, maybe oil". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-17.
- The Azolla Research Team