The Early Eocene Climatic Optimum lasted for over 2 million years, and was characterized by warm and equable (meaning the climate was relatively similar everywhere) conditions. Deciduous, temperate forests covered Antarctica, and palm trees marched north across Wyoming and into Arctic Canada. Summer temperatures in the Arctic Ocean were approximately 59 degrees F (33 degrees C), almost 30 degrees F (17 degrees C) warmer than today, while ocean surface temperatures in the tropics were hardly different (at most, 9 degrees F, or 5 degrees C warmer) from those at present. This low equator to pole temperature gradient, with tropical and subtropical climate zones spanning much of the globe, is a notable characteristic of early Cenozoic hothouse climates, and understanding the mechanisms by which such a low temperature gradient can be maintained is one of the greatest challenges in paleoclimate science.
Long thought to be a time of gradual cooling, scientists have recently discovered additional thermal maxima during the later stages of the Eocene. The occurrence of all Eocene thermal maxima appear to be modulated by the eccentricity of Earth's orbit, (how much the shape of a planet's orbit deviates from a circle), and these new insights into early Cenozoic climate suggest that hothouse climates are as dynamic as the icehouse climates of the later Cenozoic.
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