Hostname: page-component-6b989bf9dc-llglr Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-15T00:14:33.748Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

A review of terrestrial and marine climates in the Cretaceous with implications for modelling the ‘Greenhouse Earth’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 May 2009

Robert A. Spicer
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PR, U.K.
Richard M. Corfield
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PR, U.K.


From the unique perspective of the geological record, it appears that the ‘Greenhouse Earth’ was a feature of climate for up to 80 % of the last 500 Ma, and that therefore our present glacially dominated climate is an anomaly. The Cretaceous in particular was a time of global warmth, an extreme greenhouse world apparently warmer than our current Earth. The geological record provides perspective and constraints against which the success of climate models can be evaluated. At present there are no ways of evaluating model predictions for the future of our ‘Greenhouse Earth’ until after the event. Retrodicting the past is therefore a very useful way of testing model sensitivity and robustness. The geological record tells us that the characteristics of the Cretaceous greenhouse world were a shallower equator-to-pole temperature gradient, shallow, well-stratified epicontinental seas with a tendency towards periodic dysaerobism, and a well-developed terrestrial flora extending to the high latitudes. Both marine and non-marine data show a global cooling trend throughout Late Cretaceous time, a trend that seems to correlate with declining atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Arthur, M. A. 1982. The carbon cycle-controls on atmospheric C02 and climate in the geologic past. In Climate in Earth History (eds Berger, W. H. and Crowell, J. C.), pp. 5567. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
Arthur, M. A., Allard, D. & Hinga, K. R. 1991. Cretaceous and Cenozoic atmospheric carbon dioxide variations and past global climate change. GSA Program with Abstracts 23, A178.Google Scholar
Arthur, M. A., Dean, W. E. & Pratt, L. M. 1988. Geochemical and climatic effects of increased marine organic carbon burial at the Cenomanian/Turonian boundary. Nature 335, 714–17.Google Scholar
Arthur, M. A., Dean, W. E. & Schlanger, S. O. 1985. Variations in the global carbon cycle during the Cretaceous related to climate, volcanism and changes in atmospheric CO2. In The Carbon Cycle and Atmospheric CO2: Natural Variations Archean to Present. (eds Sundquist, E. T. and Broecker, W. S.), pp. 504–30. Washington, D.C: American Geophysical Union, Geophysical Monograph no. 32.Google Scholar
Arthur, M. A., Jenkyns, H. C., Brumsack, H. J. & Schlanger, S. O. 1990. Stratigraphy, geochemistry and paleoceanography of organic-rich Cretaceous sequences. In Cretaceous Resources, Events and Rhythms; Background and Plans for Research (eds Ginsburg, R. N. and Beaudoin, B.), pp. 75121. NATO ASI Series no. 304.Google Scholar
Arthur, M. A., Schlanger, S. O. & Jenkyns, H. C. 1987. The Cenomanian-Turonian Oceanic Anoxic Event. II. Paleoceanographic controls on organic-matter production and preservation. In Marine Petroleum Source Rocks (eds Brooks, J. and Fleet, A. J.), pp. 401–20. Geological Society of London Special Publication no. 26.Google Scholar
Askin, R. A. 1983. Tithonian (Uppermost Jurassic)-Barremian (Lower Cretaceous) spores, pollen and microplankton from the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. In Antarctic Earth Sciences (4th International SCAR Symposium, Adelaide, 1982), (eds Oliver, R. L., James, P. R. and Jago, J. B.), pp. 295–7. Australian Academy of Science.Google Scholar
Askin, R. A. 1989. Origins and evolution of the Antarctic biota. Geological Society of London Special Paperno. 47, 107–19.Google Scholar
Askin, R. A. & Spicer, R. A. In Press. The late Cretaceous and Cenozoic history of vegetation and climate at northem and southern high latitudes: a comparison. In Studies in Geophysics. National Academy Press, Washington D.C.Google Scholar
Barrera, E., Huber, B. T., Savin, S. M. & Webb, P. N. 1987. Antarctic marine temperatures: Late Campanian through early Paleocene. Paleoceanography 2, 2147.Google Scholar
Barron, E. J. 1983. A warm equable Cretaceous: the nature of the problem. Earth-Science Reviews 19, 305–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Barron, E. J. 1984. Climatic implications of the variable obliquity explanation of Cretaceous-Paleocene high-latitude floras. Geology 12, 595–8.Google Scholar
Barron, E. J. 1987. Global Cretaceous paleogeography-International Geologic Correlation Program 191. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 59, 207–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Barron, E. J. & Washington, W. M. 1985. Warm Cretaceous climates: high atmospheric CO2 as a plausible mechanism. In The Carbon Cycle and Atmospheric CO2: Natural Variations Archean to Present (eds Sundquist, E. T. and Broecker, W. S.), pp. 546–53. Washington, D.C: American Geophysical Union, Geophysical Monograph no. 32.Google Scholar
Boersma, A. & Shackleton, N. J. 1981. Oxygen and carbon isotope variations and planktonic foraminifera depth habitats, late Cretaceous to Paleocene, Central Pacific, Deep Sea Drilling Project Sites 463 and 465. Initial Reports of the Deep Sea Drilling Project 62, 513–26.Google Scholar
Bralower, T. J. & Thierstein, H. R. 1984. Low productivity and slow deep-water circulation in mid-Cretaceous oceans. Geology 12, 614–18.2.0.CO;2>CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brass, G. W., Southam, J. R. & Peterson, W. H. 1982. Warm saline bottom water in the ancient ocean. Nature 296, 620–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cantrill, D. J. & Webb, J. A. 1987. A reappraisal of PhyllopteroidesMedwell (Osmundaceae) and its stratigraphic significance in the Lower Cretaceous of eastern Australia. Alcheringa 11, 5985.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Corfield, R. M., Cartlidge, J. E., Premoli-Silva, I. & Housley, R. A. 1991. Oxygen and carbon isotope stratigraphy of the Palaeocene and Cretaceous limestones of the Bottaccione Gorge and the Contessa Highway sections, Umbria, Italy. Terra Nova 3, 414–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Daniel, I. L., Lovis, J. D. & Reay, M. B. 1990. A brief introductory report on the mid Cretaceous megaflora of the Clarence Valley, New Zealand. Proceedings, ird IOP Conference,Melbourne,1988, 27–9.Google Scholar
Dettmann, M. E. & Thomson, M. R. A. 1987. Cretaceous palynomorphs from the James Ross Island area, Antarctica-a pilot study. British Antarctic Survey Bulletin 77 1359.Google Scholar
Douglas, J. G. 1969. The Mesozoic Floras of Victoria. Parts 1 & 2. Geological Survey of Victoria Memoir no. 28,310 pp.Google Scholar
Douglas, J. G. 1973. The Mesozoic Floras of Victoria. Part 3. Geological Survey of Victoria Memoir no. 29, 185 pp.Google Scholar
Douglas, J. G. & Williams, G. E. 1982. Southern polar forests: the early Cretaceous floras of Victoria and their palaeoclimatic significance. Paleogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 39, 171–85.Google Scholar
Douglas, R. G. & Savin, S. M. 1975. Oxygen and carbon isotope analyses of Tertiary and Cretaceous microfossils from Shatsky Rise and other sites in the North Pacific Ocean. Initial Reports of the Deep Sea Drilling Project 32, 509–21.Google Scholar
Emiliani, C. 1954. Depth habitats of some species of pelagic foraminifera as indicated by oxygen isotope ratios. American Journal of Science 252, 149–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Epstein, S., Buchsbaum, R., Lowenstam, H. A. & Urey, H. C. 1953. Revised carbonate-water isotopic temperature scale. Geological Society of America Bulletin 64, 1315–26.Google Scholar
Francis, J. E. 1986. Growth rings in Cretaceous and Tertiary wood from Antarctica and their palaeoclimatic implications. Palaeontology 29, 665–84.Google Scholar
Goody, R. 1980. Polar processes and world climate (a brief overview). Monthly Weather Review 108, 1935–42.Google Scholar
Grant, P. R., Spicer, R. A. & Parrish, J. T. 1988. Palynofacies of Northern Alaskan Cretaceous coals. 7th International Palynological Congress,Brisbane. Abstracts volume, p. 60.Google Scholar
Gregory, R. T., Douthitt, C. B., Duddy, I. R., Rich, P. & Rich, T. H. 1989. Oxygen isotope composition of carbonate concretions from the Lower Cretaceous of Victoria, Australia: implications for the evolution of meteoric waters on the Australian continent in a paleopolar environment. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 92, 2742.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Haq, B. U., Hardenbol, J. & Vail, P. R. 1987. Chronology of fluctuating sea levels since the Triassic. Science 235, 1156–67.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kennett, J. P. & Stott, L. D. 1990. Proteus and Protooceanus: ancestral Paleocene oceans as revealed from Antarctic stable isotopic results; ODP leg 113. In Proceedings of the Ocean Drilling Program, Scientific Results vol. 113(eds Barker, P. F. et ai.), pp. 865–80. College Station, TX: Ocean Drilling Program.Google Scholar
Kimura, T. & Sekido, S. 1975. Nilssoniocladusn. gen. (Nilssoniaceae n. fam.) newly found from the early Lower Cretaceous of Japan. Palaeontographica 153–B, 111–18.Google Scholar
Lowenstam, H. A. & Epstein, S. 1954. Paleotemperatures of the post-Aptian Cretaceous as determined by the oxygen isotope method. Journal of Geology 62, 207–48.Google Scholar
May, F. E. & Shane, J. D. 1985. An analysis of the Umiat delta using palynologic and other data, North Slope, Alaska. United States Geological Survey Bulletin 1614, 97120.Google Scholar
Meyen, S. V. 1973. Plant morphology and its nomothetical aspects. Botanical Review 39, 205–60.Google Scholar
Parrish, J. T. 1982. Upwelling and petroleum source beds, with reference to Paleozoic. Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists 66, 750–74.Google Scholar
Parrish, J. T., Parrish, J. M., Hutchison, J. H. & Spicer, R. A. 1987. Late Cretaceous vertebrate fossils from the North Slope of Alaska and implications for dinosaur ecology. Palaios 2, 377–89.Google Scholar
Parrish, J. T. & Spicer, R. A. 1988. Middle Cretaceous wood from the Nanushuk Group, central North Slope, Alaska. Palaeontology 31, 1934.Google Scholar
Parrish, J. T., Spicer, R. A., Douglas, J. G., Rich, T. H. & Vickers-Rich, P. 1991. Continental climate near the Albian South Pole and comparison with the climate near the North Pole. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 23, A302.Google Scholar
Pirrie, D. & Marshall, J. D. 1990. High-palaeolatitude Late Cretaceous palaeotemperatures: new data from James Ross Island, Antarctica. Geology 18, 31–4.Google Scholar
Rich, P. V., Rich, T. H., Wagstaff, B. E., McEwen Mason, J., Douthitt, C. B., Gregory, R. T. & Felton, E. A. 1988. Evidence for low temperatures and biologic diversity in the Cretaceous high latitudes of Australia. Science 242, 1403–6.Google Scholar
Rich, T. H. & Rich, P. V. 1989. Polar dinosaurs and biotas of the early Cretaceous of southeastern Australia. National Geographic Research 5, 1552.Google Scholar
Schlanger, S. O. & Jenkyns, H. C. 1976. Cretaceous oceanic anoxic events: causes and consequences. Geologie en Mijnbouw 55, 179–84.Google Scholar
Shackleton, N. J. 1967. Oxygen isotope analyses and Pleistocene temperatures re-assessed. Nature 215, 1517.Google Scholar
Shackleton, N. J., Corfield, R. M. & Hall, M. A. 1985. Stable isotope data and the ontogeny of Palaeocene planktonic foraminifera. Journal of Foraminiferal Research 15, 321–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shackleton, N. J., Hall, M. A., Line, J. & Shuxi, C. 1983. Carbon Cycle isotope data in core VI9–30 confirm reduced carbon dioxide in the ice age atmosphere. Nature 306, 319–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shackleton, N. J. & Opdyke, N. D. 1977. Oxygen isotope and palaeomagnetic evidence for early Northern hemisphere glaciation. Nature 270, 216–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shackleton, N. J. & Pisias, N. G. 1985. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, orbital forcing and climate. In The Carbon Cycle and Atmospheric CO2: Natural Variations Archean to Present (eds Sundquist, E. T. and Broecker, W. S.), pp. 303–18. Washington, D.C., American Geophysical Union, Geophysical Monograph no. 32.Google Scholar
Sloan, L. C. & Barron, E. J. 1990. ‘Equable’ climates during Earth history? Geology 18, 489–92.Google Scholar
Smiley, C. J. 1967. Paleoclimatic interpretations of some Mesozoic floral sequences. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin 51, 849–63.Google Scholar
Spaeth, C., Hoefs, J. & Vetter, U. 1971. Some aspects of the isotopic composition of belemnites and related paleotemperatures. Geological Society of America Bulletin 82, 3139–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spicer, R. A. 1987. Late Cretaceous floras and terrestrial environment of northern Alaska. In Alaskan North Slope Geology (eds Tailleur, I. and Weimer, P.), pp. 497512. Bakersfield: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Pacific Section.Google Scholar
Spicer, R. A. 1989 a. Physiological characteristics of land plants in relation to environment through time. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences 80, 321–9.Google Scholar
Spicer, R. A. 1989 b. Plants at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London series B, 325, 291305.Google Scholar
Spicer, R. A. 1990. Reconstructing high latitude Cretaceous vegetation and climate: Arctic and Antarctic compared. In Antarctic Paleobiology and its Role in the Reconstruction of Gondwana (eds Taylor, T. N. and Taylor, E. L.), pp. 1526. New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
Spicer, R. A. & Parrish, J. T. 1986. Paleobotanical evidence for cool North Polar climates in middle Cretaceous (Albian-Cenomanian) time. Geology 14, 703–6.2.0.CO;2>CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spicer, R. A. & Parrish, J. T. 1987. Plant megafossils, vertebrate remains, and paleoclimate of the Kogosukruk Tongue (Late Cretaceous), North Slope, Alaska. United States Geological Survey Circular 998, 47–8.Google Scholar
Spicer, R. A. & Parrish, J. T. 1990 a. Late Cretaceous-early Tertiary palaeoclimates of northern high latitudes: a quantitative view. Journal of the Geological Society, London 147, 329–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spicer, R. A. & Parrish, J. T. 1990 b. Latest Cretaceous woods of the central North Slope, Alaska. Palaeontology 33, 225–42.Google Scholar
Truswell, E. M. 1990. Cretaceous and Tertiary vegetation of Antarctica: a palynological perspective. In Antarctic Paleobiology and its Roie in the Reconstruction of Gondwana (eds Taylor, T. N. and Taylor, E. L.), pp. 7188. New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
Urey, H. C. 1947. The thermodynamic properties of isotopic substances. Journal of the Chemical Society 1947, 562–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Vail, P. R., Mitchum, R. M. Jr & Thompson, S. III. 1977. Global cycles of relative changes of sea level. In Seismic Stratigraphy-Applications to Hydrocarbon Exploration (ed. Payton, C. E.), pp. 8397. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir no. 26.Google Scholar
Wing, S. L. 1991. Comments and reply on ‘Equable’ climates during Earth history? Geology 19, 539–40.Google Scholar
Wolfe, J. A. 1978. A paleobotanical interpretation of Tertiary climates in the Northern Hemisphere. American Scientist 66, 694703.Google Scholar
Wolfe, J. A. 1979. Temperature Parameters of Humid to Mesic Forests of Eastern Asia and Relation to Forests of Other Regions of the Northern Hemisphere and Australasia. United States Geological Survey Professional Paper no. 1106, 37 pp.Google Scholar
Wolfe, J. A. 1990. Paleobotanical evidence for a marked temperature increase following the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary. Nature 343, 153–6.Google Scholar
Wolfe, J. A. & Upchurch, G. R. Jr 1987. North American nonmarine climates and vegetation during the Late Cretaceous. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 61, 3377.Google Scholar
Ziegler, A. M. 1990. Phytogeographic patterns and Continental configuration during the Permian period. In Palaeozoic Palaeogeography and Biogeography (eds McKerrow, W. S. and Scotese, C. R.), pp. 363–79. Geological Society Memoir no. 12.Google Scholar
Ziegler, A. M., Raymond, A. L., Gierolowski, T. C., Horrell, M. A., Rowley, D. B. & Lottes, A. L. 1987. Coal, climate and terrestrial productivity: the present and Early Cretaceous compared. In Coal and Coalbearing Strata: Recent Advances (ed Scott, A. C.), pp. 2549. Geological Society Special Publication no. 32.Google Scholar