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This Is What Caused the End-Permian Extinction 252 Million Years Ago

By LIDA TUNESI

In a study published earlier this year, Professor Benjamin Black (The City College of New York, The Graduate Center) and colleagues discovered something about Earth’s mantle that raised a new question about a major extinction event. Now, they may have answered it.

Scientists knew that eruptions in the volcanic region called the Siberian Traps contributed to the global warming that caused the End-Permian extinction 252 million years ago, but earlier research from Black’s lab pointed out that this answer wasn’t complete. Something else must have also contributed.

“There needed to be an additional source of carbon,” Black said. “This paper points to one potential solution: light carbon from organic matter and burning coal in the basin through which the magmas erupted.”

The new paper appears in the journal Geology. In it, the authors show that hundreds of millions of years ago, volcanoes in what is now western Siberia intruded into and burned large amounts of coal and vegetation. These acted as extra sources of carbon that contributed to climate change, leading to the End-Permian extinction. This extinction killed off over 95% of marine species and about 70% of land species.

Researchers were aware that there was coal in the Siberian Traps region, and had guessed that some of it had burned. What this study adds, Black explained, is field evidence. It also answers the question “what else helped cause the extinction?” and gives clear warning signs for the state of the planet today.

“It is clear that Earth’s climate system went haywire during the End-Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago,” Black said. “One major lesson for us is that as humans perturb the climate system more and more, there could be climatic behavior we weren’t expecting. Once humans change the climate past a certain point, it may be very difficult or impossible to restore, at least on timescales relevant to humans.”