From: Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office
Published September 16, 2015 09:14 AM

New study finds massive eruptions likely triggered mass extinction

Around 252 million years ago, life on Earth collapsed in spectacular and unprecedented fashion, as more than 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species disappeared in a geological instant. The so-called end-Permian mass extinction ­— or more commonly, the “Great Dying” — remains the most severe extinction event in Earth’s history.

Scientists suspect that massive volcanic activity, in a large igneous province called the Siberian Traps, may have had a role in the global die-off, raising air and sea temperatures and releasing toxic amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over a very short period of time. However, it’s unclear whether magmatism was the main culprit, or simply an accessory to the mass extinction.

MIT researchers have now pinned down the timing of the magmatism, and determined that the Siberian Traps erupted at the right time, and for the right duration, to have been a likely trigger for the end-Permian extinction.

According to the group’s timeline, explosive eruptions began around 300,000 years before the start of the end-Permian extinction. Enormous amounts of lava both erupted over land and flowed beneath the surface, creating immense sheets of igneous rock in the shallow crust. The total volume of eruptions and intrusions was enough to cover a region the size of the United States in kilometer-deep magma. About two-thirds of this magma likely erupted prior to and during the period of mass extinction; the last third erupted in the 500,000 years following the end of the extinction event. This new timeline, the researchers say, establishes the Siberian Traps as the main suspect in killing off a majority of the planet’s species.

“We now can say it’s plausible,” says Seth Burgess, who received his PhD last year from MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and is now a postdoc at the U.S. Geological Survey. “The connection is unavoidable, because it’s clear these two things were happening at the same time.”

Burgess and Sam Bowring, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Earth and Planetary Science at MIT, have published their results in the journal Science Advances.

Continue reading at MIT News.

Volcano image via Shutterstock.

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