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Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 171B recovered continuous sequences that yield evidence for a suite of ‘critical’ events in the Earth’s history. The main events include the late Eocene radiolarian extinction, the late Palaeocene benthic foraminiferal extinction associated with the Late Palaeocene Thermal Maximum (LPTM), the Cretaceous-Palaeogene (K-P) extinction, the mid-Maastrichtian event, and several episodes of sapropel deposition documenting the late Cenomanian, late Albian and early Albian warm periods. A compilation of stable isotope results for foraminifera from Leg 171B sites and previously published records shows a series of large-scale cycles in temperature and δ13C trends from Albian to late Eocene time. Evolution of δ18O gradients between planktic and benthic foraminifera suggests that the North Atlantic evolved from a circulation system similar to the modern Mediterranean during early Albian time to a more open ocean circulation by late Albian-early Cenomanian time. Sea surface temperatures peaked during the mid-Cretaceous climatic optimum from the Albian-Cenomanian boundary to Coniacian time and then show a tendency to fall off toward the cool climates of the mid-Maastrichtian. The Albian-Coniacian period is characterized by light benthic oxygen isotope values showing generally warm deep waters. Lightest benthic oxygen isotopes occurred around the Cenomanian-Turonian boundary, and suggest middle bathyal waters with temperatures up to 20 °C in the North Atlantic. The disappearance of widespread sapropel deposition in Turonian time suggests that sills separating the North Atlantic from the rest of the global ocean were finally breached to sufficient depth to permit ventilation by deep waters flowing in from elsewhere. The Maastrichtian and Palaeogene records show two intervals of large-scale carbon burial and exhumation in the late Maastrichtian-Danian and late Palaeocene-early Eocene. Carbon burial peaked in early Danian time, perhaps in response to the withdrawal of large epicontinental seas from Europe and North America. Much of the succeeding Danian period was spent unroofing previously deposited carbon and repairing the damage to carbon export systems in the deep ocean caused by the K-P mass extinction. The youngest episode of carbon exhumation coincided with the onset of the early Eocene Warm Period and the LPTM, and has been attributed to the tectonic closure of the eastern Tethys and initiation of the Himalayan Orogeny.

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