Volcanic eruptions wiped out ocean life 93 million years ago

July 16, 2008

University of Alberta scientists contend they have the answer to mass extinction of animals and plants 93 million years ago. The answer, research has uncovered, has been found at the bottom of the sea floor where lava fountains erupted, altering the chemistry of the sea and possibly of the atmosphere.

Undersea volcanic activity triggered a mass extinction of marine life and buried a thick mat of organic matter on the sea floor about 93 million years ago, which became a major source of oil, according to a new study.

"It certainly caused an extinction of several species in the marine environment," said University of Alberta Earth and Atmospheric Science researcher Steven Turgeon. "It wasn't as big as what killed off the dinosaurs, but it was what we call an extreme event in the Earth's history, something that doesn't happen very often."

U of A scientists Turgeon and Robert Creaser say the lava fountains that erupted altered the chemistry of the sea and possibly of the atmosphere.

"Of the big five mass extinctions in the Earth's history, most of them were some kind of impact with the planet's surface," said Turgeon. "This one is completely Earth-bound, it's strictly a natural phenomenon."

Turgeon and Creaser found specific isotope levels of the element osmium, an indicator of volcanism in seawater, in black shale-rocks containing high amounts of organic matter-drilled off the coast of South America and in the mountains of central Italy.

"Because the climate was so warm back than, the oceanic current was very sluggish and it initially buffered this magmatic pulse, but eventually it all went haywire," said Turgeon. "The oxygen was driven from the ocean and all the organic matter accumulated on the bottom of the sea bed, and now we have these nice, big, black shale deposits worldwide, source rocks for the petroleum we have today."

According to their research, the eruptions preceded the mass extinction by a geological blink of the eye. The event occurred within 23 thousand years of the extinction and the underwater volcanic eruption had two consequences: first, nutrients were released, which allowed mass feeding and growth of plants and animals. When these organisms died, their decomposition and fall towards the sea floor caused further oxygen depletion, thereby compounding the effects of the volcanic eruption and release of clouds of carbon dioxide in to the oceans and atmosphere. The result was a global oceanic anoxic event, where the ocean is completely depleted of oxygen. Anoxic events-while extremely rare-occur in periods of very warm climate and a raise in carbon dioxide levels, which means that this research could not only help prove a mass-extinction theory, but also help scientists studying the effects of global warming.

An odd side-effect of the mass extinction, the result of the anoxic event caused as an indirect result of the underwater volcanic eruptions, was that temperatures and carbon dioxide levels on the Earth's surface actually dropped.

"Organic matter that's decaying returns components like carbon and CO2 to the atmosphere," said Turgeon. "But this event locked them up at the bottom of the ocean, turning them into oil, drawing down the CO2 levels of the ocean and the atmosphere."

After 10,000-50,000 years, the carbon dioxide levels rose again. "Business as usual," said Turgeon, adding that this might hold a warning for organic life on the planet today, he said.

"There's a bit of an analogy for what's going on today," he said. "What happens if we pump more CO2 into the atmosphere? This tells me that the oceans maybe have limited buffering capacity for CO2 ."

The research appears on Thursday in the weekly science journal Nature.

Source: University of Alberta

Explore further: Ensuring the safety of offshore carbon storage

Related Stories

Ensuring the safety of offshore carbon storage

October 20, 2017

Carbon dioxide is an essential part of our atmosphere, but industrial and commercial activities over the past 150 years have seen CO2 emissions rise to problematic levels. EU-funded research is examining how to capture the ...

Ocean atmosphere rife with microbes

October 16, 2017

Microbes are dispersed widely over the oceans with islands acting as stepping-stones to help transport of land-based organisms.

Ice stream retreats under a cold climate

October 19, 2017

Why did the Jakobshavn Isbræ ice stream in West Greenland retreat under a cold climate period called the Younger Dryas? A research article, published in Nature Communications, shows that a warmer ocean surface in central-eastern ...

Recommended for you

Carbon coating gives biochar its garden-greening power

October 20, 2017

For more than 100 years, biochar, a carbon-rich, charcoal-like substance made from oxygen-deprived plant or other organic matter, has both delighted and puzzled scientists. As a soil additive, biochar can store carbon and ...

Cool roofs have water saving benefits too

October 20, 2017

The energy and climate benefits of cool roofs have been well established: By reflecting rather than absorbing the sun's energy, light-colored roofs keep buildings, cities, and even the entire planet cooler. Now a new study ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (6) Jul 16, 2008
Certainly sounds safer to just reduce our carbon load to me!
4.2 / 5 (6) Jul 16, 2008
"...where the average temperature was nearly twice that of today."

On which of the four temperature scales? Surely not either Kelvin or Rankin which are zero-based. Must be one of the two relative scales. In which case, referring to the temperature as being "twice" today's is imprecise and misleading.
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 16, 2008
i like the irony that a mass volcanic event which was very hot, actually cooled the atmosphere, and meanwhile created an extinction so spectacular that the remains of its tiny victims littered the sea bed in thick layers,transforming them into oil which would, many years afterwards, be burnt by the next dominant species, man kind, and then reheat the earth.

hot volacano--cold planet kill life = cold world oil a later rise of specied mankind = learning how to burn to keep warm and thrive = reheating the planet.

so basically our new adiction to oil is just part of this volcano process.
2 / 5 (4) Jul 16, 2008
The volcano is so symbolic of the dual destructive/ creative force of nature. I think we are an extention of that force, and that any stupid and destructive thing we do can be viewed in that respect. An inevitable process of creation.
2 / 5 (4) Jul 16, 2008
The temperature was twice what it is today and the tuatara still survived (earlier PhysOrg article that a several degree GW will lead to an all male population and therefore it's extinction -............. NOT)
2 / 5 (2) Jul 16, 2008
I do not believe the Caribbean sea existed 90 million years ago. The opening between the Atlantic and the Pacific between North and South America must still have been quite wide.
2 / 5 (3) Jul 17, 2008
Was osmium isotopes abnormally elevated for this anoxic event? Subsea volcanism is common.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 17, 2008
If only they had the knowledge back then as we do now they could've reduced their carbon emissions and this disaster would never have happened. HaHA!!!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.