‘Great dy­ing’ on Earth could hap­pen again, study says

The Hamilton Spectator - - Canada & World - EVAN BUSH

More than two-thirds of life on Earth died off some 252 mil­lion years ago, in the largest mass ex­tinc­tion event in Earth’s his­tory.

Re­searchers have long sus­pected that vol­canic erup­tions trig­gered “the Great Dy­ing,” as the end of the Per­mian ge­o­logic pe­riod is some­times called, but ex­actly how so many crea­tures died has been some­thing of a mys­tery.

Now sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton and Stan­ford be­lieve their mod­els re­veal how so many an­i­mals were killed, and they see fright­en­ing par­al­lels in the path our planet is on to­day.

Mod­els of the ef­fects of vol­canic green­house gas releases showed the Earth warm­ing dra­mat­i­cally and oxy­gen dis­ap­pear­ing from its oceans, leav­ing many ma­rine an­i­mals un­able to breathe, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished Thurs­day in the peer-re­viewed jour­nal Sci­ence. By the time tem­per­a­tures peaked, about 80 per cent of the oceans’ oxy­gen, on av­er­age, had been de­pleted. Most ma­rine an­i­mals went ex­tinct.

The re­searchers tested the model’s re­sults against fos­sil-record pat­terns from the time of ex­tinc­tion and found they cor­re­lated closely. Al­though other fac­tors, such as ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion, might have con­trib­uted some to the Per­mian ex­tinc­tion, warm­ing and oxy­gen loss ac­count for the pat­tern of the dy­ing, ac­cord­ing to the re­search.

By this cen­tury’s end, if emis­sions con­tinue at their cur­rent pace, hu­mans will have warmed the ocean about 20 per cent as much as dur­ing the ex­tinc­tion event, the re­searchers say. By 2300, that fig­ure could be as high as 50 per cent.

“The ul­ti­mate, driv­ing change that led to the mass ex­tinc­tion is the same driv­ing change that hu­mans are do­ing to­day, which is in­ject­ing green­house gases into the at­mos­phere,” said Justin Penn, a UW doc­toral stu­dent in oceanog­ra­phy and the study’s lead au­thor.

Curtis Deutsch, a UW as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of oceanog­ra­phy and an au­thor of the re­search, said if so­ci­ety con­tin­ues to pump green­house gases at our cur­rent rate, “we have no rea­son to think it wouldn’t cause a sim­i­lar type of ex­tinc­tion.”

The Earth 252 mil­lion years ago was a much dif­fer­ent place. The con­ti­nents as we know them to­day were still mostly one land mass, named Pangea, which looks like a chunky let­ter “C” on a map.

The cli­mate, how­ever, re­sem­bled Earth’s now, and re­searchers be­lieve an­i­mals would have adapted many traits, like me­tab­o­lism, that were sim­i­lar to crea­tures to­day. Nearly ev­ery part of the Per­mian Ocean, be­fore the ex­tinc­tion, was filled with sea life.

“Less than one per cent of the Per­mian Ocean was a dead zone — quite sim­i­lar to to­day’s ocean,” Deutsch said.

The se­ries of vol­canic events in Siberia that many sci­en­tists be­lieve set off the mass ex­tinc­tion “makes su­per vol­ca­noes look like the head of a pin,” said Seth Burgess, a ge­ol­o­gist and vol­ca­nol­o­gist with the United States Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey.

“We’re talk­ing about enough lava erupted onto the sur­face and in­truded into the crust to cover the area of the United States that if you looked at the U.S. from above was maybe a kilo­me­tre deep in lava,” he said.

Burgess, who has re­searched the Siberian Traps vol­canic events but did not work on the new Sci­ence pa­per, said sci­en­tists be­lieve magma ris­ing from the earth re­leased some ex­tinc­tion-caus­ing green­house gases.

In ad­di­tion, sills of magma still in­side the earth heated mas­sive de­posits of coal, peat and car­bon­ate min­er­als, among oth­ers, which vented even more car­bon and meth­ane into the at­mos­phere.

“That’s how you drive the Per­mian mass ex­tinc­tion, by in­trud­ing mas­sive vol­umes of magma into a basin rich in car­bon-bear­ing sed­i­ments,” he said.

The UW and Stan­ford re­search “takes the next step in fig­ur­ing out why things died at the end of the Per­mian,” Burgess said. “It cou­ples what we think was hap­pen­ing in the cli­mate with the fos­sil record, and it does it el­e­gantly.”

It took a su­per­com­puter more than six months to sim­u­late all the changes the vol­canic erup­tions are sus­pected of caus­ing dur­ing the Per­mian pe­riod. The com­puter mod­els go into re­mark­able de­tail — sim­u­lat­ing things such as clouds, ocean cur­rents and ma­rine plant life — in de­scrib­ing what tem­per­a­tures and con­di­tions were like on Earth.


Re­search from a group of sci­en­tists shows the Antarc­tic ice sheet has tripled its rate of ice loss over 25 years.


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