Timeline of a mass extinction: New evidence points to rapid collapse of Earth’s species 252 million years ago

Nov 18, 2011 By Jennifer Chu
Graphic: Christine Daniloff

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 more than 185 million years earlier.

The end-Permian 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 ’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 has now established 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 researchers 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.

With 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 present their findings this week in Science, and say the new timescale may help scientists home in on the end-Permian extinction’s likely causes.

“People have never known how long extinctions lasted,” says 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.”

Rocks in a hard place

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 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 that covered 2 million square kilometers of Earth — an area roughly three times the size of Texas.

“In the old days you could say, ‘Oh, it’s about the same time, therefore it’s cause and effect,’” Bowring says. “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.”

‘Something unusual going on’

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 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 says. “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 says. “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.”

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NameIsNotNick
1.6 / 5 (13) Nov 18, 2011
Well the one silver lining in this scenario is enormous amounts of CO2 didn't reach a tipping point and run-away greenhouse heating.
Shootist
1.6 / 5 (20) Nov 18, 2011
All the carbon that is in the crust was once in the atmosphere as CO2. All the petroleum, coal, limestone, natural gas, diamond, graphite . . . was once airborne. And the planet didn't reach the tipping point to run-away greenhouse.

ekim
3.5 / 5 (8) Nov 18, 2011
All the carbon that is in the crust was once in the atmosphere as CO2. All the petroleum, coal, limestone, natural gas, diamond, graphite . . . was once airborne. And the planet didn't reach the tipping point to run-away greenhouse.


I find that hard to believe.
Isaacsname
Nov 18, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
JDoddsGW
1.2 / 5 (23) Nov 18, 2011
Yes just blame it on CO2. The pronlem is that in order to get the greenouse warming effect you have to add an extra energy photon to the extra added CO2. If there were no extra energy coming into the earth you do NOT get CO2 caused warming regardless of how much CO2 you have. It s just like water Vapor. We know we have extra GHG water vapor available. It does NOT get used UNLESS there are extra added energy photons available. SO this blame it on CO2 theory is pure GARBAGE. It does not make scientific sense. It is sensationalistic journalism
JDoddsGW
1.2 / 5 (19) Nov 18, 2011
If you really want to look for a cause, try the fact that 252 million years ago was when the Earth eccentricity last went to zero. ie there was no winter. It was always a constant temperature. which means more constant plant growth, which means more CO2. The CO2 is an effect , not the cause.
Pirouette
1.3 / 5 (10) Nov 18, 2011
252.2M years ago, obviously, nobody was digging up coal, HOWEVER, coal fields around the world MAY have been struck by lightning and were burning underground. But, the article mentions "evidence of simultaneous and widespread wildfires that may have added to end-Permian global warming" Those fires, contributing to land erosion, might have ignited coal underground also when coal was exposed. Coal is known to burn slowly underground for a very long time, depending on the amount of coal available. Oil seeping up from underground reservoirs could also have ignited due to the wildfires, similar to the oil fields in Kuwait set afire by iraqis. The oceans may have had enormous amounts of volcanic eruptions. The island building and lava flow would also add CO2 emissions. I'd say it was a combination of natural events all over the world almost simultaneously, but sustained, that was responsible for the many species dying out.
JDoddsGW
1 / 5 (4) Nov 18, 2011
Sorry scratch the Earth eccentricity theory thst was 2.5 million years ago, not 252 million.
rubberman
4.1 / 5 (13) Nov 18, 2011
JDGW.....you need to re-visit HOW GHG's do what they do. You do not require additional energy to initiate a heating effect. If the ratio of heat heat lost vs heat gained is one to one, and you introduce an element to prevent heat loss, the net effect is warming....get it?
omatumr
1 / 5 (17) Nov 18, 2011
A massive release of thermogenic carbon dioxide and/or methane may have caused the catastrophic extinction . . .


Yes, but long term studies show that Earth's climate has always changed because Earth's heat source itself is changing.

"Origin and Evolution of Life Constraints on the Solar
Model", Journal of Modern Physics 2, 587-594 (2011)

http://dl.dropbox...5079.pdf

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
http://myprofile....anuelo09
Osiris1
1 / 5 (5) Nov 18, 2011
One writer said that nobody was digging up coal 250MYA. How do we know. Anybody here watch the series: "Earth Without People"? In that series was postulated the general idea that the more a society is 'advanced', the more fragile its products. Our distant ancestors used stone widely, and so it is in the remains along with the surviving bones. Nothing is left of the roof of Stonehenge. To build stones in a circle and taller ones in an inner concentric circle and not look for evidence of a roof, concentrating only on 'strange rituals, ad nauseum' strains credulity. Modern society's products rot away or break faster than a twinky in the sun. Within a few millenia nothing will be left of us if we suddenly leave. Now in 250 million years most of the fossils may have already been recycled in the earth's mantle along with all the stuff they and their ancestors built, assuming they developed much like we did and did not colonize our place from somewhere else, like Mars, etc.
Paulw789
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 18, 2011
I'm sorry.

The largest volcanic events in the planet's history, enough to cover the entire United States in 1 mile high of magma ...

... and its the CO2 that killed everything. Last time the Permian extinction got reported here, it was a dead tree eating fungus.

The Siberian Traps volcanoes were astoundingly massive. It was a very bad day (1,000 years at a time) on Earth when one of these events went off. That's what killed almost all species.

Benni
1.3 / 5 (12) Nov 18, 2011
252.2M years ago, might have ignited coal underground Oil seeping up from underground reservoirs could also have ignited due to the wildfires,


We've been taught coal & oil are fossil fuels. Are these not the animals that formed the oil deposits which by this point in time are not even yet dead....must be one of those conundrums... .
ekim
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 18, 2011
We've been taught coal & oil are fossil fuels. Are these not the animals that formed the oil deposits which by this point in time are not even yet dead....must be one of those conundrums... .

Who ever taught you, should have also taught you that life has been around for 4 billion years. So, 4 billion minus 250 million equals 3.75 billion years of coal and oil production.
l1l1l1l1l1
5 / 5 (5) Nov 18, 2011
All the carbon that is in the crust was once in the atmosphere as CO2. All the petroleum, coal, limestone, natural gas, diamond, graphite . . . was once airborne. And the planet didn't reach the tipping point to run-away greenhouse.


Maybe so, but it wasn't all in the air at the same time was it?
sselig
1 / 5 (5) Nov 18, 2011
If the solar system passed through even a diffuse nebula, the heliosphere could have been compressed enough for earth to spend part of each orbit outside the heliopause, allowing material from the nebula to be captured. If this were the source of the carbon over a twenty thousand year period, it may have been absorbed in the ocean at almost the same rate it entered the atmosphere, leading to severe warming short of a runaway greenhouse effect. (Does the research measure an increase in atmospheric carbon directly, or merely show a huge influx?) Deposits from the same nebula may have been left on other bodies within the solar system. While it's probably impractical to look for such evidence, other clues may be easier to find. For example, atmospheric oxygen may simultaneously have been depleted as it reacted with nebular hydrogen in the upper atmosphere. ---s
Pirouette
1 / 5 (10) Nov 18, 2011
LOL. . .I cannot believe I'm reading such nonsense. Life on Earth did not start 4 BILLION years ago. At that time, the world was basically a molten mass of accretion and was still being bombarded with all kinds of detritus from the early solar system. Perhaps 1 billion years ago or less, the first one celled animals came into being, and they later divided into plant life and multi-celled animals over time. I stand by the wildfires theory that atmospheric CO2 were caused by wildfires and volcanic action on coal fields and petroleum bubbling up from the ground and causing them to burn. Dead vegetation and immense pressures on that vegetation caused the formation of coal, and dead vegetation and oils from dead animals resulted in petroleum-filled caverns. The making of coal and oil was an ongoing process 252 million years ago and before since the life cycle began. It makes sense that massive amounts of CO2 emissions would come from burning coal and oil since organics contain CO2.
verkle
1 / 5 (16) Nov 18, 2011
What is the basis for stating that such an event happened 252 million years ago? Where is the evidence?

The theories above, despite being given by thoughtful and sincere people, are quite laughable. What not try to think of it in a different light? A story ages old about a worldwide flood that killed off most of the animal and plant life on the earth. It makes so much more sense.

Jonseer
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 18, 2011
All the carbon that is in the crust was once in the atmosphere as CO2. All . . . was once airborne. And the planet didn't reach the tipping point to run-away greenhouse.



that is utter nonsense.

Not all at one moment in time in the Earth's history has such a situation ever been close to being true, not even during its early formative years.

The carbon in whatever form it came originally did NOT come all at once.

It came with the other elements that make up the Earth. Because of this vast amounts ended up buried within the Earth some forever or transformed into minerals that never had a gaseous stage on Earth, like deep mantle Diamonds created from the original carbon delivered to Earth during formation.

The amounts of carbon that have been released as pulses or gradually as various gases have always to contend with at least had the carbonate-silicate cycle and when live came along the carbon cycle as well.

Jonseer
2.8 / 5 (5) Nov 18, 2011
LOL. . .I cannot believe I'm reading such nonsense. Life on Earth did not start 4 BILLION years ago....


The Earth is around 5 BILLION years old.

And while every theory can have holes in it, yours doesn't present a better scenario.
MarkyMark
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 19, 2011
What is the basis for stating that such an event happened 252 million years ago? Where is the evidence?

The theories above, despite being given by thoughtful and sincere people, are quite laughable. What not try to think of it in a different light? A story ages old about a worldwide flood that killed off most of the animal and plant life on the earth. It makes so much more sense.


Lol only to the trully gullable. Let me guess - your real name is something like Sarah Palin?
Vendicar_Decarian
0.6 / 5 (39) Nov 19, 2011
You are out to lunch on so many levels.

First, you make the classic blunder of confusing a thermally isolated system with one that is not isolated.

Second, you make the error of presuming that there can be no differential heating - a concentration of energy here, and a reductio there.

Third, you confuse energy and temperature.

Forth, You confuse energy with photons.

and you make other errors as well.

Heating of the lower atmosphere, doesn't need extra photons because there are already sufficient photons flowing through the atmosphere to produce a heating. The amount of heat they produce is dependent upon how long their energy takes to diffuse out of the lower atmosphere. Longer diffusion times mean higher temperatures

"The pronlem is that in order to get the greenouse warming effect you have to add an extra energy photon to the extra added CO2. If there were no extra energy coming into the earth you do NOT get CO2 caused warming regardless of how much CO2 you have." - JWDoofus
Vendicar_Decarian
0.6 / 5 (39) Nov 19, 2011
Extra photons for warming - JWDoofus

How do you think a blanket works Doofus? Do you think that it adds photons of heat to the underside to keep you warm?

No. It simply keeps some of the photons you emit from immediately radiating into the room around you, by reducing the rate at which energy from your body diffuses through the blanket.

if you don't understand that, then you understand pretty much Nothing.

And that is why the Koch Brothers and the Oil and Coal industries are so easily able to control you.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.7 / 5 (40) Nov 19, 2011
"What is the basis for stating that such an event happened 252 million years ago? Where is the evidence?" - Verkle

http://palaeo.gly...tro.html

Educate yourself. Moron.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.6 / 5 (39) Nov 19, 2011
"Life on Earth did not start 4 BILLION years ago." - Spirochete

The earliest life looks to have started 3.43 billion years ago.

Single cell organisms of course.

Your estimate of life starting 1 billion years ago is just ignorance.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.5 / 5 (38) Nov 19, 2011
"Are these not the animals that formed the oil deposits" - Benni

Animals didn't form oil deposits Benni. You are wearing a Creationville LunaTard.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.4 / 5 (37) Nov 19, 2011
Wow, that is astonishingly stupid of you to say.

The seasons aren't caused by the eccentricity of the earth's orbit, but is caused by the tilt in the earth's rotational axis relative to it's orbital axis.

When it is winter in America, what season is it in Australia?

Clueless Idiot.

"If you really want to look for a cause, try the fact that 252 million years ago was when the Earth eccentricity last went to zero. ie there was no winter." - JWDoofus
Vendicar_Decarian
0.3 / 5 (37) Nov 19, 2011
"All the carbon that is in the crust was once in the atmosphere as CO2." - ShooTard

Well..... No. Most of the carbon remains locked up in the earth's crust in the form of minerals, and has been since the earth formed.

You are as clueless as always.

Vendicar_Decarian
0.3 / 5 (37) Nov 19, 2011
"enormous amounts of CO2 didn't reach a tipping point and run-away greenhouse heating." - NameIs

Sun was cooler. Continents were in a different location.
stardust magician
1.4 / 5 (9) Nov 19, 2011
Wow, so easily fooled. As a working magician, I find people are so led astray by what "evidence" they appear to see. The real trick is hidden in what people don't see. That is where the secrets hide. The "evidence" scientists see is not the truth. Illusion happens in nature all the time. Try thinking outside the box.
stealthc
1.4 / 5 (9) Nov 19, 2011
greenwashing at it's finest. Who paid for the study the IPCC?
Ethelred
3.9 / 5 (8) Nov 19, 2011
This article is NOT about global warming. Its about the permian extinction. The many posts by denialists shows a rather extreme fixation with a single subject.

Ethelred
Vendicar_Decarian
0.2 / 5 (36) Nov 20, 2011
Benni
1 / 5 (4) Nov 20, 2011
We've been taught coal & oil are fossil fuels. Are these not the animals that formed the oil deposits which by this point in time are not even yet dead....must be one of those conundrums... .

Who ever taught you, should have also taught you that life has been around for 4 billion years. So, 4 billion minus 250 million equals 3.75 billion years of coal and oil production.


Who ever taught you that dinosaurs have been around for 4 billion years? That's what we're talking about here, not paramecium? Do you know of any paramecium currently forming oil? Redo your timeline about 3.75 billion years, and you'll see my point.
Ethelred
3 / 5 (5) Nov 21, 2011
VD didn't make that claim. He says a lot of remarkably stupid things, he is a troll, but not that.

Why do you think that amount of time is involved? This the end of the Permian and not the entire Pre-Cambrian.

Dinosaurs are not the source of coal or oil. Plants are the source of coal.

There isn't enough to go on to know what oil came from with any certainty. Best guess is it from single celled life in water.

http://www.straig...inosaurs

http://www.priweb...ure.html

Coal:
http://www.mnn.co...ome-from

http://en.wikiped...iki/Coal

Volcanoes do produce CO2 as well and that is source of the Siberian Traps. If the lava hit limestone that too would produce CO2.

Ethelred