Abstract

A prominent increase in atmospheric CO2 at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, ca. 55 Ma, led to the warmest Earth of the Cenozoic for ∼100 k.y. High-resolution studies of continental flood-plain sediment records across this boundary can provide crucial information on how the hydrological cycle responds to rapidly changing CO2. Here we show from continental records across the Paleocene-Eocene boundary in the Spanish Pyrenees, a subtropical paleosetting, that during the early, most intense phase of CO2 rise, normal, semiarid coastal plains with few river channels of 10-200 m width were abruptly replaced by a vast conglomeratic braid plain, covering at least 500 km2 and most likely more than 2000 km2. This braid plain is interpreted as the proximal parts of a megafan. Carbonate nodules in the megafan deposits attest to seasonally dry periods and together with megafan development imply a dramatic increase in seasonal rain and an increased intra-annual humidity gradient. The megafan formed over a few thousand years to ∼10 k.y. directly after the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. Only repeated severe floods and rainstorms could have contributed the water energy required to transport the enormous amounts of large boulders and gravel of the megafan during this short time span. The findings represent evidence for considerable changes in regional hydrological cycles following greenhouse gas emissions.

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