The Palaeocene–Eocene (P-E) boundary at 55.8 Ma marks the most dramatic biological changes since the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary 10 million years earlier. They included the rapid expansions of mammals and land plants and major extinction of deep-water foraminifera. It was a time of sudden global warming (5-10°C in 10-20 ka) superimposed on the general Cenozoic cooling from the ‘hothouse’ of the Cretaceous Period. It coincided with a decrease in the proportion of 13C in marine carbonates. Because photosynthesis, the source of organic carbon, favours light 12C, such a negative δ13C “spike” is generally ascribed to an unusually high release of organic carbon to the atmosphere. The end-Palaeocene warming may have resulted from a massive release of methane from gas-hydrate buried in shallow seafloor sediments. But another process may yield such a signature; massive burning of organic material at the land surface. Since its discovery, the P-E thermal maximum has been likened to the situation that we may face should CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning continue to rise without control. Unsurprisingly, funds are more easily available for research on this topic than, say, ‘Snowball Earth’ events.
Climate change during the last 65 million years. The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum is labelled PETM. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Three seafloor sediment cores off the east coast of the US that include the P-E boundary have been found to contain evidence for an impact that occurred at the time of the δ13C “spike” (Schaller, M.F. et al. 2016. Impact ejecta at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. Science, v. 354, p. 225-229). The evidence is dominated by tiny spherules and tear-shaped blobs of glass, some of which contain tiny crystals of shocked and high-temperature forms of silica (SiO2). These form part of the suite of features that have been used to prove the influence of asteroid impacts. Two other onshore sites have yielded iridium anomalies at the boundary, so it does look like there was an impact at the time. The question is, was it large enough either to cause vast amounts of methane to blurt out from shall-water gas hydrates or set the biosphere in fire? Two craters whose age approximates that of the P-E boundary are known, one in Texas the other in Jordan, with diameters of 12 and 5 km respectively; far too small to have had any global effect. So either a suitably substantial crater of the right age is hidden somewhere by younger sediments or the association is coincidental – the impact that created the Texan crater could conceivably have flung glassy ejecta to the area of the three seafloor drilling sites.
Almost coinciding with the spherule-based paper’s publication another stole its potential thunder. Researchers at Southampton University used a mathematical model to investigate how a methane release event might have unfolded (Minshull, T.A. et al. 2016. Mechanistic insights into a hydrate contribution to the Paleocene-Eocene carbon cycle perturbation from coupled thermohydraulic simulations. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 43, p. 8637-8644, DOI: 10.1002/2016GL069676). Their findings challenge the hypothesized role of methane hydrates in causing the sudden warming at the P-E boundary. But that leaves out the biosphere burning, which probably would have neded a truly spectacular impact.
More on mechanisms for ancient climate change
Aftermath of the 1906 mine explosion at Courrières, northern France; the largest mining disaster in Europe with 1099 fatalities. Image via Wikipedia
Britain is on the cusp of a shale-gas boom (see Britain to be comprehensively fracked? : EPN 14 October 2011) and it is as well to be prepared for some potential consequences. In extensively fracked parts of the US – the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado – there are reports of water taps emitting roaring flames after dissolved methane in groundwater ignites. This is largely due to common-place household water supplies from unprocessed groundwater, which are rare in Britain. But there are other hazards (Mooney, C. 2011. The truth about fracking. Scientific American, v. 305 (Nov 2011), p. 62-67) that have enraged Americans in affected areas, which are just as likely to occur in Britain. In fact the nature of shale-gas exploitation by horizontal drilling beneath large areas poses larger threats in densely populated area, as the people of Blackpool have witnessed in the form of small earthquakes that the local shale-gas entrepreneur Cuadrilla admit as side effects of their exploratory operations .
Chris Mooney succinctly explains the processes involved in fracking shale reservoirs; basically huge volumes of water laced with a cocktail of hazardous chemicals and sand being blasted into shales at high pressure to fracture the rock hydraulically and create pathways for natural gas to leak to the wells. One risk is that this water has to be recovered and stored in surface ponds for re-use. About 75% returns to the surface and also carries whatever has been dissolved from the shales, which can be extremely hazardous. By definition a shale containing hydrocarbons creates strongly reducing conditions, which in turn can induce several elements to enter solution as well as easily dissolved salts; for instance divalent iron (Fe2+) is highly soluble, whereas more oxidised Fe3+ is not, so waters having passed through gas-rich shales will be iron-rich. But that is by no means the worst possibility; one of the most common iron minerals in sedimentary rocks is goethite (FeOOH), which adsorbs many otherwise soluble elements and compounds. In reducing conditions goethite can break down to release its adsorbed elements, among which is commonly arsenic. The blazing faucet hazard results from hydrocarbon gases leaking through imperfectly sealed well casings to enter shallow groundwater, where the gases can also create reducing conditions and release toxic elements and compounds into otherwise pure groundwater by dissolution of ubiquitous goethite, as in the infamous arsenic crisis of Bangladesh and adjoining West Bengal in India where natural reducing conditions do the damage.
What is not mentioned in the Scientific American article is the common association of hydrogen sulfide gas with petroleum, produced from abundant sulfate ions in formation water by bacteria that reduce sulfate to sulfide in the metabolism. This ‘sour gas’, as it is known in the oil industry, is a stealthy killer: at high concentrations it loses its rotten-eggs smell and in the early days of the petroleum industry killed more oil workers than did any other occupational hazard. Visit the spa towns of Harrogate in Yorkshire and Strathpeffer in northern Scotland and sample their waters for examples of what Carboniferous and Devonian gas-rich shales produce quite naturally: noxious stuff of questionable efficacy. The environmental effects of such natural seepage from gas-rich rocks tell a cautionary tale as regards fracking. The highly reducing cocktail of hydrocarbon and sulfide gases in rising, mineral-rich formation water kills the microbiotic symbionts that are essential to plant root systems for nutrient uptake die and so too do trees. The onshore Solway Basin of Carboniferous age in NW England illustrates both points, having many chalybeate springs as the sulfide- and iron-rich waters are euphemistically known and also a strange phenomenon in many of the deep valleys cut by glacial melt waters as land rose following the last glacial maximum. Once trees reach a certain height – and correspondingly deep root systems – they die, to litter the valley woodland with large dead-heads. Also leaves on smaller trees turn to their autumnal colours earlier than on higher ground. Both seem to be due to minor gas seepages from thick sale sequences in the depths of the sedimentary basin. Indeed, both are botanical indicators to the hydrocarbon explorationist.
To recap, a common size of a fracking operation using several horizontal wells driven from a single wellhead is 4km in diameter entering gas-rich shales at up to 2 km depth. Each well can generate fractures of a hundred metres or more in the shales and surrounding rocks, as they have to for commercial production. In Britain, most of the sites underlain by shales with gas potential are low-lying agricultural- or urban land. The producing rock in the Blackpool area is the Middle Carboniferous Bowland Shale that lies beneath the Coal Measures of what was formerly the Lancashire coalfield, now a patchwork of expanding urban centres. On 23 May 1984 an explosion occurred in Abbystead, Lancashire at an installation designed to pump winter flood water between the rivers Lune and Wyre through a tunnel beneath the Lower to Middle Carboniferous Bowland Fells. The Abbystead Disaster coincided with an inaugural demonstration of the pumping station to visitors, of whom 16 were killed and 22 injured. Methane had escaped from Carboniferous shales to build up in the flood-balancing tunnel soon after its construction. Methane build-ups were by far the worst hazard throughout the history of British coal mining, thousands dying and being maimed as a result of explosions. One of the largest death tolls in British coal-mining history was 344 miners at Hulton Colliery in Westhoughton, Lancashire in 1910 after a methane explosion; the methane may well have escaped from the underlying Bowland Shales.