Scientists close in on mass killer of life on earth

251 million years ago, massive eruptions in Siberia killed most of the plants and animals on Earth.
251 million years ago, massive eruptions in Siberia killed most of the plants and animals on Earth. Jon Ranson/NASA Earth Observatory/MCT

WASHINGTON — It was the greatest mass murder of all time — poison everywhere! billions slain! — but the killer or killers have never been positively identified.

An estimated 95 percent of all marine species and up to 85 percent of land creatures perished, according to Peter Ward, a paleobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Scientists call it "The Great Dying." Life took millions of years to recover.

Scientific sleuths, however, now think they're making progress toward pinning down what caused the extinction of most plants and animals on Earth some 251 million years ago.

The perpetrator wasn't an asteroid or comet, like the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and inspired movies such as "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon."

Instead, it was a cascade of events that began with a monstrous outpouring of hot, reeking lava in Siberia. Repeated floods of lava released massive amounts of carbon dioxide, which produced a runaway greenhouse effect, oxygen-starved oceans and a poisoned atmosphere.

The slaughter is formally known as the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction because it marked the end of a multi-million year geologic period, the Permian, and the beginning of another, the Triassic.

To further unravel the mystery, the National Science Foundation has launched an international project to study the Siberian lava, led by Linda Elkins-Tanton, a geologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"We have 28 scientists from seven countries and five years' worth of funding," Elkins-Tanton said. "I'm very excited about it!"

Besides being a puzzling detective story, the P-T extinction is also a cautionary tale for our time.

"The end-Permian catastrophe is an extreme version of the consequences of global warming, said Lee Kump, a geoscientist at The Pennsylvania State University. "It reminds us that there are unexpected consequences of CO2 buildup, and these can be quite dire, indeed."

The lessons of the P-T massacre are "directly applicable to the present," said John Isbell, a geoscientist at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He said the world today is in danger of exceeding a CO2 "threshold" that could set off an environmental upheaval as great as the one 251 million years ago.

Isbell said CO2 levels in the atmosphere at the time of the P-T catastrophe reached 1,000 to 1,500 parts per million (ppm), far higher than today's level of 385 ppm. (That means there are 385 carbon dioxide molecules for every 1 million total molecules in the atmosphere.)

CO2 levels are now rising by 2 ppm a year, and that's expected to accelerate to 3 ppm a year. If carbon emissions aren't reduced, some researchers fear that by the end of the next century, the CO2 level could approach what it was during the P-T period.

Exactly what caused the ancient mass extinction is still unclear, but here's how many researchers think it may have unfolded:

Over a period of about a million years, an enormous quantity of lava from deep in the Earth's interior oozed up through giant cracks in Siberia's crust. The molten mass "froze" into step-like slabs of flood basalts, volcanic rocks known as the Siberian Traps.

Enough lava gushed out to cover an area almost as large as the continental U.S.

At a conference of geologists in Vienna last April, Russian geoscientist Alexei Ivanov estimated the lava flow at 2.8 million square miles and the volume of the basalt at 960,000 cubic miles, enough to slather the entire Earth with a layer 10 or more feet thick. (In comparison, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens unleashed about a quarter of a cubic mile of lava.)

The lava from the Siberian Traps sent huge quantities of carbon dioxide and methane (natural gas) into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases caused an epic spell of global warming. Toxic acid rain drizzled from the sky, and the ozone shield in the atmosphere thinned, letting deadly ultra-violet radiation pass through.

As is happening now, the Earth warmed more near the poles than it did at the Equator. The smaller temperature difference slowed the great ocean currents that keep the waters circulating. The oceans stagnated and lost most of their oxygen. Marine plants and animals suffocated.

What happened to snuff out life on land is still debated. Some researchers believe that bacteria in the ocean, living on sulfur instead of oxygen, churned out vast quantities of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a lethal gas with a rotten-egg smell. As the hydrogen sulfide gas emerged from the sea, it choked half of all land creatures.

While the evidence points to natural processes on Earth as the culprits in the P-T mass extinction, scientists warn that humans may now be contributing to a repeat.

"In the late Permian, Earth itself was the villain, but today we've stepped in as the villain," Kump said.

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For more information

Photos of the Siberian Trap basalts

A video featuring Peter Ward