A Greenhouse Mega-Catastrophe Killed Nearly All Life on Earth – Here’s What Happened

Permian Triassic Mass Extinction

Illustration depicting the onset of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction based on findings of Jurikova et al. (2020). Ocean acidification and vanishing marine life in the surface ocean caused by a large release of volcanic CO2 from Siberian Traps. Illustrated by: Dawid Adam Iurino. Credit: PaleoFactory, Sapienza University of Rome) for Jurikova et al. (2020)

Scientists show the unfolding of one of the largest mass extinctions in Earth’s history.

Earth’s history knows catastrophes that are unimaginable for humans. For example, around 66 million years ago an asteroid impact marked the end of the dinosaur era. Long before however, 252 million years ago at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic epochs, Earth witnessed a far more extreme mass extinction event that extinguished about three-quarters of all species on land and some 95 percent of all species in the ocean. Volcanic activity on an enormous scale in today’s Siberia has long been debated as a likely trigger of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, but the exact sequence of events that led to the extinction remained highly controversial.

Now, a team of researchers from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, in collaboration with the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and Italian and Canadian universities, provides for the first time a conclusive reconstruction of the key events that led to the mega-catastrophe. Their research also draws bleak lessons for the future. They report about their discoveries in the journal Nature Geoscience.


Secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) facility at GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. Credit: Frédéric Coffignal

The international team led by Hana Jurikova studied isotopes of the element boron in the calcareous shells of fossil brachiopods — clam-like organisms — and with it determined the rate of ocean acidification over the Permian-Triassic boundary. Because the ocean pH and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) are closely coupled, the team was able to reconstruct changes in atmospheric CO2 at the onset of the extinction from boron and carbon isotopes. They then used an innovative geochemical model to study the impact of the CO2 injection on the environment.

Their findings showed that volcanic eruptions, from the then active flood basalt province “Siberian Traps,” released immense amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. This large CO2 release lasted several millennia and led to a strong greenhouse effect on the late Permian world, causing extreme warming and acidification of the ocean. Dramatic changes in chemical weathering on land altered productivity and nutrient cycling in the ocean, and ultimately led to vast de-oxygenation of the ocean. The resulting multiple environmental stressors combined to wipe out a wide variety of animal and plant groups. Dr. Jurikova says: “We are dealing with a cascading catastrophe in which the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere set off a chain of events that successively extinguished almost all life in the seas.”

Hana Jurikova adds: “Ancient volcanic eruptions of this kind are not directly comparable to anthropogenic carbon emissions, and in fact all modern fossil fuel reserves are far too insufficient to release as much CO2 over hundreds of years, let alone thousands of years as was released 252 million years ago. But it is astonishing that humanity’s CO2 emission rate is currently fourteen times higher than the annual emission rate at the time that marked the greatest biological catastrophe in Earth’s history,”

A large part of the work was done by the researcher at GEOMAR in Kiel, but she later joined the GFZ (Section 4.3) in Potsdam, and the “icing on the cake” for her were the results from a collaboration with the SIMS laboratory led by Michael Wiedenbeck at the GFZ (Section 3.1). Using the state-of-the-art large-geometry secondary ion mass spectrometer (SIMS), the isotopic composition of the shells could be measured directly on the specimens at the micrometer-scale. This made it possible to determine the boron isotopic composition even in the smallest fragments of brachiopod shells. Depending on the degree of acidification of the seas, the calcareous shells of the organisms living in them differ ever so slightly in their chemical composition. In this way, the pH value of long vanished oceans could be determined in the remains of the shells preserved as fossils in the rock record.

Read Driver Identified of the Largest Mass Extinction in the History of the Earth for more on this research.

Reference: “Permian–Triassic mass extinction pulses driven by major marine carbon cycle perturbations” by Hana Jurikova, Marcus Gutjahr, Klaus Wallmann, Sascha Flögel, Volker Liebetrau, Renato Posenato, Lucia Angiolini, Claudio Garbelli, Uwe Brand, Michael Wiedenbeck and Anton Eisenhauer, 19 October 2020, Nature Geoscience.
DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-00646-4

This work is part of the ‘BASE-LiNE Earth’ Innovative Training Network (ITN) funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (No 643084).

4 Comments on "A Greenhouse Mega-Catastrophe Killed Nearly All Life on Earth – Here’s What Happened"

  1. Impressive research, but theories on the cause of this extinction abound, there is no consensus. Glaciation, not global warming, is one suspected cause.

    Let’s quibble. Article should use quote marks around greenhouse, of course; “greenhouse gases” don’t warm a greenhouse — it’s the “house” that blocks convection which warms the greenhouse.

    Folks, it’s all about the clouds! Global warming today is caused by the Earth not being able to form enough clouds to adequately shield the Earth from the Sun’s deadly heat waves! You can put Earth’s inner mountainous materials into the sky like volcanoes do. As long as you have a certain moisture content in the atmosphere nature will make floating water molecules attach themselves to volcano ash and turn itself in mass into clouds which in mass results in rain! That system of the Sun starting the water evaporation system and the the evaporated water molecules combining with floating dirt molecules which bunch together and forms clouds and then rain has been near totally destroyed by us humans! And what is left of that environmental system that has been around for millions of years is now designigrating before our eyes and will be completely gone in about 20 years all because of what we humans are doing! And that is a fact! Wake up and save yourselves from the hell that all of you will start seeing in about 5-10 years! Read https://www.facebook.com/ron.mccune.3 to read more about this and how you can easily stop this global warming problem! All you have to do to stop global warming is to stop vacuuming water molecules out of the atmosphere with these gigantic super vacuum/heating/polluting machines called jet engine airplanes whose heat exhaust is 800 to 2500 degrees and sucks up, heats up and then pollutes enough of the air in our atmosphere to fill an enclosed Super Dome stadium every 2 minutes! Folks us dumb ass humans got about 90,000 of these civilian jet planes flying around the planet daily! And that figure doesn’t include any military jets worldwide! Then we got these rockets that have immensely increased the acceleration of global warming in the last 25 years because their exhaust is much hotter than jet airplanes! Do you know that the Space Shuttle’s exhaust temperature was nearly as hot as the Sun! Folks, us humans have got to stop putting such hot molecules into our atmosphere from anything, device, contraption or whatever! We got to stop flying rockets and jet engine airplanes immediately so that our atmosphere can again amass enough water molecules together to create clouds to shield the Earth from the Sun! Clouds are Earth’s only shade from the Sun. Clouds are Earth’s natural umbrella. Create enough clouds and us dumb*ss humans can live as recklessly as we want. You don’t have clouds then you don’t have rain and no protection from the Sun which will then evaporate all the water from the land surfaces of the Earth and then the oceans! Wake up you fools! Stop flying rockets and jet planes! go back to using propeller airplanes to fly! Propeller airplanes don’t vacuum up air or heat up the air or pollute the air like jet engine airplanes do! Also you have to stop using combustion engine vehicles because they too vacuum, heat up and pollute moisture molecules out of the atmosphere! Finally we have to redesign/remodel our buildings so that we don’t rely on heating and air conditioning systems we have now. Air conditioning systems are pulling massive amounts of water molecules out of the atmosphere. Just look at that dripping water that is emitted from all air conditioners. That dribbling water use to be moist air molecules! There is 2 new inventions coming out that any of you can make a lot of money making and selling them. The first thing is a devise that can take the heat out of an enclosed room or vehicle and emit the hotter air out of the room or vehicle or whatever else be it a tent, a box or something else. We need to put this devise in every building, vehicle and anything else needing heat to be diverted. This devise will greatly stop the need for air conditioning. Also combine this heat transfer devise in homes and dwellings with another new thing I believed is called Cool Walls. It’s a wall that has cooling and heating abilities. I said decades ago that the way to get away from the way we currently heat and cool our dwellings was to have walls that can be cooled or heated. Well after all these years someone finally did just that! We have to take these new cool and heat walls and put them in all dwellings. This would cut down on heating bills and cooling bills. It would also stop the vacuuming of the moisture out of our Earth’s moisture content so much. If all of us humans were to stop flying jet engine airplanes and using rockets and then also stop using combustion engine vehicles and stop using the air conditioners so much then I am 100% sure that global warming will stop immediately and forever! Global warming will stop then because right now with all this melting fresh water draining into the oceans salt waters there is much potential for massive water evaporation by the Sun because fresh water is lighter than salt water and thus floats on top of the saltier ocean’s waters. Right now with our present environmental situation if we were to immediately do as I say we should do to cut down on global warming then the environment would start evaporating this fresh water out of the oceans and make massive amounts of clouds worldwide. This would result in the Earth getting cooler because the clouds would shade the Earth from the Sun and the clouds would bring rain and most importantly snow to the Earth. Snow turns to ice over time if it don’t melt so if we do as I say then we could start rebuilding/resupplying our ice and snow covered parts of the world! If we don’t do what I say then you are all doomed!

    • It is obvious that you don’t know what you are talking about. Why don’t you use your time constructively to get a formal education?

  3. “Now, a team of researchers …, provides for the first time a CONCLUSIVE reconstruction of the key events that led to the mega-catastrophe.”


    Carbonic acid is a weak acid that only ionizes slightly. On the other hand, the pyrite (iron sulfide)commonly found in coal would allow the production of sulfuric and sulfurous acids, both very strong acids. The magmas would provide hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids, also strong acids. Carbonic acid probably played a minor role because of the strong carbonate buffering in the ocean. Also, warming seas would cause calcium carbonate to precipitate out. The late Permian seas were probably acidic (pH<<7), so the term "acidification" is appropriate, unlike its common, inappropriate use today for a 0.1 pH decline in alkalinity.

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