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"The Great Dying" --MIT Insights into the Most Severe Mass Extinction in Earth’s History




It was the greatest extinction event of all time (at least by Earth standards): Since the first organisms appeared on Earth approximately 3.8 billion years ago, life on the planet has had some close calls. In the last 500 million years, Earth has undergone five mass extinctions, including the event 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And while most scientists agree that a giant asteroid was responsible for that extinction, there’s much less consensus on what caused an even more devastating extinction, the end-Permian extinction, that occurred 252.2 million years ago, decimating 90 percent of marine and terrestrial species, from snails and small crustaceans to early forms of lizards and amphibians.

“The Great Dying,” as it’s now known, was the most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history, and is probably the closest life has come to being completely extinguished. Possible causes include immense volcanic eruptions, rapid depletion of oxygen in the oceans, and — an unlikely option — an asteroid collision.

While the causes of this global catastrophe are unknown, an MIT-led team of researchers established in 2011 that the end-Permian extinction was extremely rapid, triggering massive die-outs both in the oceans and on land in less than 20,000 years — the blink of an eye in geologic time. The MIT team also found that this time period coincides with a massive buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which likely triggered the simultaneous collapse of species in the oceans and on land.

Super_siberian425x275With further calculations, the group found that the average rate at which carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere during the end-Permian extinction was slightly below today’s rate of carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere due to fossil fuel emissions. Over tens of thousands of years, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the Permian period likely triggered severe global warming, accelerating species extinctions.

The researchers also discovered evidence of simultaneous and widespread wildfires that may have added to end-Permian global warming, triggering what they deem “catastrophic” soil erosion and making environments extremely arid and inhospitable.

The researchers published their findings in Science, and said the new timescale may help scientists home in on the end-Permian extinction’s likely causes.

“People have never known how long extinctions lasted,” said Sam Bowring, the Robert R. Schrock Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT. “Many people think maybe millions of years, but this is tens of thousands of years. There’s a lot of controversy about what caused [the end-Permian extinction], but whatever caused it, this is a fundamental constraint on it. It had to have been something that happened very quickly.”

Bowring worked with a group of American and Chinese researchers to pinpoint the extinction’s duration. The group analyzed volcanic ash beds from Meishan, a region in southern China where an old limestone quarry exposes rocks containing abundant fossils from the Permian period, as well as the very first fossils that signified a recovery from extinction, during the Triassic period. The rocks of the region have been widely studied as the best global example of the Permian-Triassic Boundary (PTB).

The group collected clay samples from ash beds both above and below rock layers from the PTB. In the lab, they separated out zircon, a robust mineral that can survive intense geological processes. Zircon contains trace amounts of uranium, which can be used to date the rocks in which it is found. Bowring and his colleagues analyzed 300 of the “best-looking” grains of zircon, and found the rocks above and below the mass-extinction period spanned only a 20,000-year phase.

Bowring says now that researchers are able to precisely date the end-Permian extinction, scientists will have to re-examine old theories. For example, many believe the extinction may have been triggered by large volcanic eruptions in Siberia (image below) that covered 2 million square kilometers of Earth — an area roughly three times the size of Texas.




The recent discovery of sections from the Permian-Triassic boundary in South China has allowed more detailed analysis to take place, leading to a conclusion that the Great Dying was probably caused by poisonous gas, released by the massive volcanic event in Siberia, the Siberian Traps, which spewed about 3 million cubic kilometers of basalt lava over vast swathes of the Siberian landmass (to put this in perspective, the largest eruption in historical time Mt Pinatubo on Luzon in the Phillipines 1991, released 12 cubic km of lava onto the island). This eruption ejected more than 1 cubic mile (5 cubic kilometers) of material into the air and created a column of ash that rose up 22 miles (35 km) in the atmosphere. Ash fell across the countryside, even piling up so much that some roofs collapsed under the weight. The blast also spewed millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and other particles into the air, which were spread around the world by air currents and caused global temperatures to drop by about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.5 degree Celsius) over the course of the following year.

“In the old days you could say, ‘Oh, it’s about the same time, therefore it’s cause and effect,’” Bowring said. “But now that we can date [the extinction] to plus or minus 20,000 years, you can’t just say ‘about the same.’ You have to demonstrate it’s exactly the same.”

The group also analyzed carbon-isotope data from rocks in southern China and found that within the same period, the oceans and atmosphere experienced a large influx of carbon dioxide. Dan Rothman, a professor of geophysics in EAPS, calculated the average rate at which carbon dioxide entered the oceans and atmosphere at the time, finding it to be somewhat less than today’s influx due to fossil fuel emissions.

“The rate of injection of CO2 into the late Permian system is probably similar to the anthropogenic rate of injection of CO2 now,” Rothman said. “It’s just that it went on for … 10,000 years.”

Rothman says the total amount of CO2 pumped into Earth over this time period was so immense that it’s not immediately clear where it all came from.

“It’s just not easy to imagine,” Rothman observed. “Even if you put all the world’s known coal deposits on top of a volcano, you still wouldn’t come close. So something unusual was going on.”

David Bottjer, professor of earth sciences and biological sciences at the University of Southern California, views the group’s results as strong evidence for one of the extinction’s most likely causes.

“This is the most precise set of dates that have been produced for analysis of the end-Permian mass extinction,” Bottjer said. “Because these dates are analyzed in conjunction with geochemical and fossil information they provide unique evidence … that this mass extinction was probably caused by an enormous input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans caused by volcanic eruptions.”

090902122331The image left is an Asteroceras, a Jurassic ammonite from England. After the End-Permian extinction 252.6 million years ago, ammonoids diversified and recovered 10 to 30 times faster than previous estimates. The surprising discovery raises questions about paleontologists’ understanding of the dynamics of evolution of species and the functioning of the biosphere after a mass extinction.

The study was conducted by a Franco-Swiss collaboration involving the laboratories Biogéosciences (Université de Bourgogne / CNRS), Paléoenvironnements & Paléobiosphère (Université Claude Bernard / CNRS) and the Universities of Zurich and Lausanne (Switzerland.

Ammonoids are cephalopod swimmers related the nautilus and squid. They had a shell, and disappeared from the oceans at the same time as the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, after being a major part of marine fauna for 400 MY.

The Franco-Swiss team of paleontologists has shown that ammonoids needed only one million years after the End-Permian extinction to diversify to the same levels as before. The cephalopods, which were abundant during the Permian, narrowly missed being eradicated during the extinction: only two or three species survived and a single species seems to have been the basis for the extraordinary diversification of the group after the extinction. It took researchers seven years to gather new fossils and analyze databases in order to determine the rate of diversification of the ammonoids. In all, 860 genera from 77 regions around the world were recorded at 25 successive time intervals from the Late Carboniferous to the Late Triassic, a period of over 100 million years.

The discovery of this explosive growth over a million years suggests that earlier estimates for the End-Permian extinction were based on truncated data and imprecise or incorrect dating. Furthermore, the duration for estimated recovery after other lesser extinctions all vary between 5 and 15 million years.

The Daily Galaxy via MIT and Science.org


Phil...thanks for catching this. The editor.

If putting the world's coal reserves on top of a volcano "wouldn't come close" to the amount of carbon dioxide actually injected, how extensive would volcanic activity have to be in order to accomplish it?

And what caused the Siberian Traps? Doesn't the most likely hypothesis remain antipodal resonance from a large impact on the other side of the world, as happened with the dinosaur killer as well, which opened the Deccan Traps in what is now India, when it was further south, causing it to speed up and ram Asia? I recall reading they'd even found the crater under what is now Antarctica. And since evidence for the same phenomenon is obvious on Mars (Hellas vis a vis the volcanoes) and Venus (I'm told) why look further than the simplest explanation? An ocean impact rings the Earth like a bell, and where the shock waves coalesce, the mantle and crust liquefy. Impacts are bound to happen. Not every extinction event is caused by an impact, but when you've got vast fields of molten basalt involved, and a crater on the other side, it's a pretty good bet.

Also missing from the otherwise great article is discussion of the clathrate and permafrost melt known to have occurred as the coup de grace of this event, which took global temperatures another 5 degrees higher -- and which may be it for us too if we don't do something drastic soon -- so it's good to keep reminding people of that very real danger. CO2 is bad, but methane released rapidly is far worse, and there are a lot of indications that's already started in the Laptev Sea north of Siberia.

Poor CO2, not even half a percent of the total atmosphere, beats me how so little can have such a huge effect, a question that never gets answered by the way.

If 90% have been "decimated," one could accurately conclude that 81% survived with no trouble. Are you totally unaware of the origins of the words you use?

to pikestaff: Actually, how a small amount of CO2 could have such a huge influence on the climate has been explained quite often. You just haven't heard the explanations because they aren't what you want to hear.

This extinction event happened because that's when the seafloors first begun to massively spread. Yes, despite popular belief the oceanic crust didn't always exist. Just look at Mars! It has the same amount of dry land as Earth does [basically correlating to Pangaea but on a planetary scale]! Coincidence? I think not...

to Jack Butler: In common use "decimated" is a synonym for destroyed. Sometimes it is used to mean 1 in 10 people in a group are killed, but that is a very specific usage of the word. He used it correctly, therefore if 90% are decimated, 10% survived. And what was up with the "with no trouble" addition. Almost as ridiculous as adding "because they aren't what you want to hear." So much angst...

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