We’re still releasing the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere today, but there was a massive release in the past: About 55 million years ago, the Earth burped up a massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere–an amount equivalent to burning all the petroleum and other fossil fuels that exist today. Geologist Will Clyde is concerned because "We don’t know where it came from. This is a big part of the carbon cycle that affected the climate system, and we don’t understand it."

In order to find out, he is organizing a geological study in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming to search for clues to this event, which occurred during a period of extreme warming called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. A team of 27 scientists from 11 institutions will drill a series of cores into the basin’s stratified layers of rocks that they hope will yield better understanding of this mystery and– perhaps–of current and future global climate change.

It’s not just ancient history that the team is interested in. Researchers suspect that the carbon release may have been a result of an initial rise in temperature during the this period and they wonder whether current warming, due to global climate change, could launch a similar event. Clyde says, "Could our dependence on carbon-based energy sources trigger one or more causes of prehistoric global warming and, as a result, make our struggle with a warming earth far worse than currently predicted?"

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