Series of transient greenhouse warming intervals in the early Eocene provide an opportunity to study the response of rock weathering and erosion to changes in temperature and precipitation. During greenhouse warming, chemical weathering is thought to increase the uptake of carbon from the atmosphere, while physical weathering and erosion control sediment supply. A large ancient greenhouse warming event is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum at 56 Ma. In many coastal sites, an increase in the abundance of kaolinite clay during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum is interpreted as the result of reworking from terrestrial strata due to enhanced runoff caused by increased seasonal precipitation and storminess during a time of decreased vegetation cover. In the continental interior of North America, Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum paleosols show more intense pedogenesis and drying, which are indicated by deeply weathered and strongly oxidized soil profiles. The weathering and oxidation could be related to temperature and precipitation changes, but also to increased time available for weathering and increased soil permeability in coarser sediment.
Here, we provide evidence for enhanced climate seasonality, increased erosion of proximal laterites and intrabasinal floodplain soils, and a potential slight increase in chemical weathering during the smaller early Eocene hyperthermals (Eocene Thermal Maximum 2, including H1 and H2) postdating the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, for which no previous clay mineral data were available. Hyperthermal soil formation at the site of floodplain deposition causes a similar, insignificant clay mineralogical change as occurred during the background climates of the early Eocene by showing small increases in smectite and decreases in illite-smectite and illite. Remarkably, the detrital sediments during the hyperthermals show a similar pedogenic-like increase of smectite and decreases of mixed-layer illite-smectite and illite, while the kaolinite and chlorite proportions remained low and unchanged. Since sedimentation rates and provenance were similar during the events, enhanced smectite neoformation during soil formation in more proximal settings, and associated reworking, is the likely process causing this clay mineralogical change. The hundreds to thousands of year time scales at which individual paleosols were formed were probably too short for significant alteration of the rocks by in situ chemical weathering despite changing climates during the two post–Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum greenhouse warming episodes. The relatively small signal, however, raises the question of whether increased chemical weathering can indeed be a strong negative feedback mechanism to enhanced greenhouse gas warming over the time scales at which these processes act.