The impacts of the Paleocene-Eocene therrual maximum (PETM) (∼55 Ma), one of the most rapid and extreme warming events in Earth history, are well characterized in open marine and terrestrial environments but are less so on continental margins, a major carbon sink. Here, we present stable isotope, carbonate content, organic matter content, and C:N ratio records through the PETM from new outcrop sections in California and from cores previously drilled on the New Jersey margin. Foraminifer δ18O data suggest that midlatitude shelves warmed by a similar magnitude as the open ocean (5°C-8°C), while the carbon isotope excursion (CIE), recorded both in carbonate and organic matter δ13C records, is slightly larger (3.3-4.5‰) than documented in open ocean records. Sediment accumulation rates increase dramatically during the CIE in marked contrast to the open ocean sites. In parallel, mass accumulation rates of both organic and inorganic carbon also increased by an order of magnitude. The estimated total mass of accumulated carbon in excess of pre-CIE rates suggests that continental margins, at least along North America, became carbon sinks during the CIE, mainly because of weathering feedbacks and rising sea level. This result is significant because it implies that the negative feedback role of carbon burial on continental margins was greater than previously recognized.
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