Cretaceous Thermal Maximum

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The Cretaceous Thermal Maximum (CTM), also known as Cretaceous Thermal Optimum, was a period of climatic warming that reached its peak approximately 90 million years ago (90 Ma) during the Turonian age of the Late Cretaceous epoch. The CTM is notable for its dramatic increase in global temperatures characterized by high carbon dioxide levels.

A graph depicting data from the Phanerozoic Geological era, showing oxygen isotopes from present to 500 Ma. The isotope levels show an correlating increase in global temperatures due to glaciation and glacial retreat.


During the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum (CTM), atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose to over 1,000 parts per million (ppm) compared to the pre-industrial average of 280 ppm. Rising carbon dioxide resulted in a significant increase in the greenhouse effect, leading to elevated global temperatures.[1] In the seas, crystalline or "glassy" foraminifera predominated, a key indicator of higher temperatures.[2] The CTM began during the Cenomanian/Turonian transition and was associated with a major disruption in global climate as well as global anoxia during Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 (OAE-2).[3] The CTM was one of the most extreme disruptions of the carbon cycle in the past 100 million years.[2][4] It represented one of the most prominent peaks in the global temperature record of the Phanerozoic eon.[5]

Geological causes[edit]

From 250 to 150 Ma, Pangaea covered the Earth's surface, forming one super continent and one gargantuan ocean. During the breakup of Pangaea from 150 to 130 Ma, the Atlantic Ocean began to form the "Atlantic Gateway".[6] Geological records from both the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) and the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) support the enhancement of the CTM by the rifting of the Atlantic Ocean. Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is thought to have been enhanced by the changing geography of the oceans.[4] While rising carbon dioxide levels caused increased global warming, the climate models of the Cretaceous period do not show such elevated global temperatures due to the Earth's carbon dioxide variations. Geologic records show evidence of dissociation of methane clathrates, which causes a rise in carbon dioxide, as the oxygen gas in the atmosphere will oxidize the released methane.[7]

Progression with time[edit]

Measurements of the ratio of stable oxygen isotopes in samples of calcite from foraminifera from sediment cores show gradual warming starting in the Albian period and leading to the interval of peak warmth in the Turonian[8] followed by a gradual cooling of surface temperatures to the end of the Maastrichitan age.[9] During the Turonian, several pronounced but relatively short-lived cooler intervals punctuate the otherwise remarkably stable interval of extreme warmth.


Late Cenomanian sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the equatorial Atlantic Ocean were substantially warmer than today (~27-29°C).[2] Turonian equatorial SSTs are conservatively estimated based on δ18O and high pCO2 estimates to have been ~32°C, but may have been as high as 36°C.[10] TEX86L values suggest minimum and maximum low-latitude SSTs of 33-34 ± 2.5°C and 37-38 ± 2.5°C, respectively.[11] Rapid tropical sea surface temperature changes occurred during the CTM.[2] High global temperatures contributed to diversification of terrestrial species during the Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution and also led to warm stratified oceans during the Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 (OAE-2).[12]

Depiction of average planetary temperature of Earth over the past 500 million years. Note that the scale of 500-100 Ma is halved to fit on the graph, with the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum occurring at the peak just before 100 Ma.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rothman, Daniel H. (2002-04-02). "Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the last 500 million years". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99 (7): 4167–4171. Bibcode:2002PNAS...99.4167R. doi:10.1073/pnas.022055499. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 123620. PMID 11904360.
  2. ^ a b c d Foster, A., et al. "The Cretaceous Thermal Maximum and Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 in the Tropics: Sea- Surface Temperature and Stable Organic Carbon Isotopic Records from the Equatorial Atlantic." American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2006. The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System. Web. 20 Oct. 2009. <>
  3. ^ Norris, Richard (2018). "Cretaceous Thermal Maximum ~85-90 Ma." Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Accessed 20 September 2018. Archived 2018-09-20 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ a b Poulsen, Christopher J.; Gendaszek, Andrew S.; Jacob, Robert L. (1 February 2003). "Did the rifting of the Atlantic Ocean cause the Cretaceous thermal maximum?". Geology. 31 (2): 115–118. Bibcode:2003Geo....31..115P. doi:10.1130/0091-7613(2003)031<0115:DTROTA>2.0.CO;2. Retrieved 17 March 2023.
  5. ^ Scotese, Christopher R.; Song, Haijun; Mills, Benjamin J. W.; Van der Meer, Douwe G. (April 2021). "Phanerozoic paleotemperatures: The earth's changing climate during the last 540 million years". Earth-Science Reviews. 215: 103503. Bibcode:2021ESRv..21503503S. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2021.103503. S2CID 233579194. Retrieved 17 March 2023.
  6. ^ Pucéat, Emmanuelle; Lécuyer, Christophe; Sheppard, Simon M. F.; Dromart, Gilles; Reboulet, Stéphane; Grandjean, Patricia (2003-05-03). "Thermal evolution of Cretaceous Tethyan marine waters inferred from oxygen isotope composition of fish tooth enamels". Paleoceanography. 18 (2): 1029. Bibcode:2003PalOc..18.1029P. doi:10.1029/2002pa000823. ISSN 0883-8305.
  7. ^ Jahren, A. Hope; Arens, Nan Crystal; Sarmiento, Gustavo; Guerrero, Javier; Amundson, Ronald (2001). "Terrestrial record of methane hydrate dissociation in the Early Cretaceous". Geology. 29 (2): 159–162. Bibcode:2001Geo....29..159J. doi:10.1130/0091-7613(2001)029<0159:TROMHD>2.0.CO;2. ISSN 0091-7613.
  8. ^ Clarke, Leon J.; Jenkyns, Hugh C. (1999). "New oxygen isotope evidence for long-term Cretaceous climatic change in the Southern Hemisphere". Geology. 27 (8): 699–702. Bibcode:1999Geo....27..699C. doi:10.1130/0091-7613(1999)027<0699:NOIEFL>2.3.CO;2. ISSN 0091-7613.
  9. ^ Huber, Brian T.; Hodell, David A.; Hamilton, Christopher P. (October 1995). "Middle–Late Cretaceous climate of the southern high latitudes: Stable isotopic evidence for minimal equator-to-pole thermal gradients". Geological Society of America Bulletin. 107 (10): 1164–1191. Bibcode:1995GSAB..107.1164H. doi:10.1130/0016-7606(1995)107<1164:MLCCOT>2.3.CO;2. ISSN 0016-7606.
  10. ^ Wilson, Paul A., Richard D. Norris, and Matthew J. Cooper. "Testing the Cretaceous greenhouse hypothesis using glassy foraminiferal calcite from the core of the Turonian tropics on Demerara Rise." Geology 30.7 (2002):607-610. Web. Oct.2009.<>.
  11. ^ O'Brien, Charlotte L.; Robinson, Stuart A.; Pancost, Richard D.; Sinninghe Damsté, Jaap S.; Schouten, Stefan; Lunt, Daniel J.; Alsenz, Heiko; Bornemann, André; Bottini, Cinzia; Brassell, Simon C.; Farnsworth, Alexander; Forster, Astrid; Huber, Brian T.; Inglis, Gordon N.; Jenkyns, Hugh C.; Linnert, Christian; Littler, Kate; Markwick, Paul; McAnena, Alison; Mutterlose, Jörg; Naafs, B. David A.; Püttmann, Wilhelm; Sluijs, Appy; Van Helmond, Niels A. G. M.; Vellekoop, Johan; Wagner, Thomas; Wrobel, Neil A. (September 2017). "Cretaceous sea-surface temperature evolution: Constraints from TEX86 and planktonic foraminiferal oxygen isotopes". Earth-Science Reviews. 172: 224–247. Bibcode:2017ESRv..172..224O. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2017.07.012. S2CID 55405082.
  12. ^ McInerney, Francesca A.; Wing, Scott L. (2011-05-30). "The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum: A Perturbation of Carbon Cycle, Climate, and Biosphere with Implications for the Future". Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 39 (1): 489–516. Bibcode:2011AREPS..39..489M. doi:10.1146/annurev-earth-040610-133431. ISSN 0084-6597.