Spatial pattern of super-greenhouse warmth controlled by elevated specific humidity

Joep van Dijk, Alvaro Fernandez, Stefano M. Bernasconi, Jeremy K. Caves Rugenstein, Simon R. Passey, Tim White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Earth’s climate sensitivity, defined as the temperature increase for a doubling of partial pressure of carbon dioxide (pCO2), and the mechanisms responsible for amplification of high-latitude warming remain controversial. The latest Palaeocene/earliest Eocene (LPEE; 57–55 million years ago) is a time when atmospheric CO2 concentrations peaked between 1,400 and 4,000 ppm, which allows us to evaluate the climatic response to high pCO2. Here we present a reconstruction of continental temperatures and oxygen isotope compositions of precipitation (reflective of specific humidity) based on clumped and oxygen isotope analysis of pedogenic siderites. We show that continental mean annual temperatures reached 41 °C in the equatorial tropics, and summer temperatures reached 23 °C in the Arctic. The oxygen isotope compositions of precipitation reveal that compared with the present day the hot LPEE climate was characterized by an increase in specific humidity and the average residence time of atmospheric moisture and by a decrease in the subtropical-to-polar specific humidity gradient. The global increase in specific humidity reflects the fact that atmospheric vapour content is more sensitive to changes in pCO2 than evaporation and precipitation, resulting in an increase in the residence time of moisture in the atmosphere. Pedogenic siderite data from other super-greenhouse periods support the evidence that the spatial patterns of specific humidity and warmth are related, providing a new means to evaluate Earth’s climate sensitivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)739-744
Number of pages6
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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