“The Great Dying” happened Fast. But Not as Fast as We’re Doing it Now.

November 28, 2011


The end-Permian extinction occurred 252.2 million years ago, decimating 90 percent of marine and terrestrial species, from snails and small crustaceans to early forms of lizards and amphibians. “The Great Dying,” as it’s now known, was the most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history, and is probably the closest life has come to being completely extinguished. Possible causes include immense volcanic eruptions, rapid depletion of oxygen in the oceans, and — an unlikely option — an asteroid collision.

While the causes of this global catastrophe are unknown, an MIT-led team of researchers has now established that the end-Permian extinction was extremely rapid, triggering massive die-outs both in the oceans and on land in less than 20,000 years — the blink of an eye in geologic time. The researchers also found that this time period coincides with a massive buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which likely triggered the simultaneous collapse of species in the oceans and on land.

With further calculations, the group found that the average rate at which carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere during the end-Permian extinction was slightly below today’s rate of carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere due to fossil fuel emissions. Over tens of thousands of years, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the Permian period likely triggered severe global warming, accelerating species extinctions.

The researchers also discovered evidence of simultaneous and widespread wildfires that may have added to end-Permian global warming, triggering what they deem “catastrophic” soil erosion and making environments extremely arid and inhospitable.

Seth Borenstein – AP

In geologic terms, it was surprisingly quick, and it may provide a scary lesson about climate change for our future, authors of the new study say. It was the third of five extinctions in world history, occurring even before dinosaurs roamed.

This extinction killed off more than three-quarters of life on the planet in an event scientists have called the Great Dying. The Chinese dig sites provide new dates and details of the event, which occurred at the end of the Permian Era. It happened 252 million years ago and may have lasted less than 100,000 years, far shorter than scientists had thought, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Science.

The study also bolsters the prevailing scientific concept that the giant die-off was caused by a massive shift in climate – global warming, prehistoric style – triggered by volcanic activity that is far beyond modern levels. The research also makes the case that the burst of carbon dioxide and methane thrown into the atmosphere that triggered the die-off took only about 20,000 years, less than previously thought, though the ecological damage lasted longer.

And devastating fires raged worldwide, not just where the volcanoes exploded, the paper said.

“Imagine drying out the Amazon and burning it up,” said study co-author Douglas Erwin, a paleobiology curator at the Smithsonian Institution. “It certainly was a very uncomfortable time. You’re killing off 75 to 90 percent of everything on the planet. It’s not going to be terribly pleasant.”

The air at times could be like the thick smog outside an old Eastern European power plant, Erwin said.

It was the only mass extinction in history to kill off hardy insects, Erwin said. Afterward, there were very few species left worldwide, and they had little diversity among different regions. It was only later that dinosaurs and mammals roamed the Earth.

This climate change “happened naturally, and it killed everything,” Erwin said. But he said that if critics of global warming science think it shows that climate change is nothing to worry about because it has happened naturally in the past, that’s the wrong conclusion.

“I think the lesson you take away from this is that you don’t want to get anywhere close to a mass extinction,” Erwin said. “It took 5 million years before life got better again.”

Philly.com picked up the story this morning, and expanded:

It’s not the heat itself but the resulting reordering of the living world that would cause a massive die-off, said Pennsylvania State University geoscience professor Lee Kump. Natural selection proceeds. Life extinguishes other life.

According to a theory that Kump proposed several years ago to explain the Mother of all Extinctions, excess heat hinders oxygen from dissolving into the oceans. Oxygen-starved oceans become hostile to fish, plankton, and other familiar life, but friendly to sulfur-using bacteria. They poison other species by exhaling hydrogen sulfide.

Peter Ward, a professor of biology and earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, popularized Kump’s theory in his 2007 book Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future.

In his vivid visualization: “Most of the shoreline is encrusted with rotting organic matter. Silklike swaths of bacterial slick now putrefying under the blazing sun, while in the nearby shallows mounds of similar mats can be seen growing up toward the sea’s surface. . . . From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple color – a vast, flat, oily purple, not looking at all like water . . . no fish break its surface, no birds of any kind . . . we are under a pale green sky and it has the smell of death and poison.”

Is this our future? Kump says there’s no way to know, but the rise in carbon dioxide that triggered the end-Permian is comparable to modern projections if we do nothing to curtail use of fossil fuels worldwide over the next century or so.

21 Responses to ““The Great Dying” happened Fast. But Not as Fast as We’re Doing it Now.”

  1. Martin_Lack Says:

    Thanks for this, Peter. May be now, people like Maurizio and Dave Burton will stop citing geological history as a reason to be unconcerned about where global average temperatures are headed.

    Indeed, rather than claiming that I do not know what I am talking about, they would both do well to accept that, the fact that the Earth has been a lot colder in the distant past (i.e. Snowball Earth prior to the explosion of life in the Cambrian era) and warmer in the more recent past (i.e. the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)) is irrelevant.

    What is relevant is that the sea level and climate stability that has lasted 7,000 years — making both settled agriculture and modern civilisation possible — has now been compromised by human activity, arrogance, and complacency.

  2. mrsircharles Says:

    The time graph at the start of the video which is spooking on several climate change denial websites is flawed. It overlays a rough logarithmic timescale of temperature from Scotese with a linear timescale for CO2 emissions from Berner. You could hardly botch a graph more.

  3. otter17 Says:

    The sun is a bit older and consequently has a higher radiative forcing than back 250 million years ago in the end Permian extinction.

    Our current rate of change is insane, and I encourage everyone to spread this message via word of mouth or email or whatever to everyone that you know. I try to encourage folks that I communicate with to tell others as well.

  4. Alteredstory Says:

    We’ve got a lovely array of spring flowers in Boston right now, and it looks like we’ll have them well into December at least.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      right. after the 60 degrees and rain we had here in central michigan last weekend, the grass is greening like in March.

      finally things have chilled down in the last 24 hours.

  5. the rate of change is insane- we can have global temperatures rise in less then 80 years now- what took 20,000 years at the end Permian, or PETM- 5-6 degrees C

    The amount of ignorance and arrogance out there is truly astounding. I talked to my congressman’s office in CT today about this- no clue

    was brushed off by Senator Blumenthal’s office as well- saying they ‘understood’ but could do ‘nothing’

    warmth here in the northeast is just strange—-frankly from my interaction with others- I see very little hope- we will go beyond 450ppm C02 and see over a 3 degree rise C in global temperatures before anything is really started- but by then it will be way too late.

    • otter17 Says:

      Keep trying, and get more people to email, write, or call your senator or house congressman in your district. Also, get a hold of the state legislators or governor if Connecticut isn’t part of that RGGI cap and trade program.

      I am trying to get my family to email congressman Boehner to reconsider his position on climate change. They and many others in my extended family happen to be in Boehner’s district. I am trying to see if they will go the extra mile to reach out to their friend circles and encourage them to send climate change emails to Boehner.

      I am also trying to get together a group of folks that want to spend some volunteer time weekly to promote climate change awareness by making signs and passing out links to the National Academies joint statement at public events or in public squares, etc. Kind of a widely distributed “protest” of sorts where each individual or small group covers a certain area of a city or event, etc.

      I hope your interactions with others will become better soon (mine haven’t been stellar lately either). If we wait for three degrees C rise to peak emissions, I don’t think the next generation will take too kindly to the excuse that “nobody would listen to us”.

    • Alteredstory Says:

      It’s a tough line to walk. I think it’s important to acknowledge the full severity of the situation, and not to delude ourselves about how bad it’s going to get, but equally, I think it’s important to not lose hope.

      I’ve come to terms with the fact that my entire life will be defined by global warming. If I live to be 90, I will see much of this century, and I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.

      I keep working because I have to, and I try to enjoy what I have. I also write science fiction, mostly about ways in which civilization survives in a dramatically different world, to keep my mind open to hope.

      I don’t know if we’ll ever get an underground city that runs on concentrated solar in the desert above it, and a massive moisture collection system, but the barriers to doing so lie in willpower and economics – not engineering or technology.

      We are an incredibly versatile species, and despite the horrors we create, we also create wonders.

      I fight for the future I WANT, rather than fighting against the future that scares me. I know that the world will be unlike anything humans have seen by the time I die, and my goal is to help build a civilization unlike anything humans have seen in that time.

      This is a challenge unlike anything our species has ever faced, but while that means that the stakes are the highest we’ve ever seen, it also means that if we rise to it, and I believe we are capable of doing so, we can create a society unlike anything our species has ever come close to. In many ways, I think we HAVE to create that if we want civilization to survive.

      So accept what will come, accept what is, learn from the past, and work toward how you think the future SHOULD be, in light of the reality we face.

  6. It is beyond frustrating that, in the interest of raising an ignorant populace and sustaining religious control over people, the populace has been told and is educated to believe that climate change is not occurring and/or has nothing to do with people and/or (as some oil companies now say) is actually good for us. The hordes of those with no concept of science will kill us all, in record time.

  7. I have talked to Governor Dannel Malloy’s office here in CT- they seem to ‘get it’
    after the huge disaster of a month ago- the Governor invoked Al Gore- and said he blamed the freakish event caused by ‘global warming’

    I also talked to the state of CT DEP- and they are very aware of what is happening.
    The problem lies in Washington- the inertia is maddening- but in the end will become deadly to us all. What a way for a culture to go off of a cliff.

    • otter17 Says:

      >> “The problem lies in Washington- the inertia is maddening- but in the end will become deadly to us all. What a way for a culture to go off of a cliff.”

      When I go out and sit with my sign that says “Talk About Climate Change”, it makes me feel better. Not too many people want to chit chat, but a lot of people do look at the sign.

      I’m trying to get more people to do this on a weekly basis. I’m also organizing some instructions, code of conduct, or standardized FAQ for people that want to volunteer their time (like an hour or two a week or whatever).

      The internet surely can connect people, but when it comes to this topic, people won’t come across it unless they search for it. I am going out and grabbing people’s attention as best as I know how. I would love to see a distributed effort in most every state or even throughout different countries that continues to “protest” until we peak emissions.

      • Martin_Lack Says:

        I admire you for all the efforts you are making. I don’t have enough passing traffic to make such tactics viable and (in any case) need to focus on finding a job and supporting my kids. By they way, where is your icon image photo taken and what rock type is that you are siting on?

      • otter17 Says:

        In the picture I’m at the summit of Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range, rock type unknown. The peaks surrounding Death Valley National Park are in the far distance.

        I’m considering other ideas for folks without a lot of time or those that are not near a high foot traffic area. For example, I made a sign from a piece of cardboard that says “Talk About Climate Change” and put it in my front window. I also have a smaller sign in my cubicle at work. I’m considering finding a bumper sticker and bicycle stickers that say much the same thing.

        Also, I would like to get folks together that don’t mind taking some time to pass links around via email, Facebook or whatever. Each week (or every other week), volunteers would simply email, post (Tweet) or whatever a link for say the National Academies Joint Statement on Climate Change. Furthermore, each email, Tweet, Facebook post, will encourage those that read it to pass on the information. Of course various little snippets of climate related information would make the rounds (AAAS statement, DoD Quadrenniel Defense Review section, etc). So few people that I talk to (even highly educated ones) know about the National Academies statement. The national academies don’t have the budget to advertise to a large degree and our political leadership has failed to highlight such a statement. Those in the know have a moral imperative to do the advertising.

        Lastly, we need knowledgeable folks to bring up the subject in their every-day lives. I think most of us already do that, though.

        I have been getting frustrated learning new information about climate change. I think I have hit a plateau of information needed for the informed citizen. Time to get out there and use it as effectively and consistently as possible.

        • Martin_Lack Says:

          They all sound like excellent ideas. I think I have burnt my bridges as far as emailing my friends and acquaintances is concerned because I (foolishly perhaps) promised not to send any more unsolicited “calls to arms” emails. Apart from at Christmas, when I fully intend to make reference to our approaching crisis.

          As far as your photo is concerned I am wishing I had been bolder because it reminded me of the view from the summit of Mt Washington in New Hampshire but the rock looked to me like granite denuded of its colour by the Sun. However, I did not say this because I know that Mt Washington is not made of granite. However, Mt Whitney is, so I was 50% right… Incidentally, have you ever read the autobiographical book by Lauren Elder, entitled And I alone survived? If you have climbed to the summit, you would appreciate it more than most (may be you have read it and it made you want to climb it)? Either way, it is certainly one of the most amazing things I have ever read…

          • otter17 Says:

            I have heard of a book about survival in that area of the mountains, but what inspired me to go was mostly the unique terrain. I was split between going to Mt. Whitney or Mt. Langley. I had heard the meadow wildlife was more diverse over at nearby Langley, but nevertheless I did see a small lake filled with fish and a handful of pikas on my way up Whitney. The pikas tried stealing some of our food. I didn’t know they were called pikas at the time, so I just told the “critters” to go away.

          • Martin_Lack Says:

            I should’t really hijack Peter’s site like this but Elder’s book is truly amazing. Look it up on Amazon (she crashes in a small plane near the summit and decides rescue is not coming so climbs down alone with a broken arm).

      • greenman3610 Says:

        that’s a great and courageous effort, as simple as it sounds.

        • otter17 Says:

          Yeah, I’m sure the going will be tough at some points. My concept is to keep the efforts as simple as possible with the most advertising effect. I’m sure that people want to volunteer, but they need some clear direction and simple things to do.

          Maybe somebody has attempted this already, but nevertheless I think it ought to be done.

          At the very least people can put a sign or two in their home windows.

  8. Martin_Lack Says:

    Expressions of frustration and exasperation are understandable (feelings that I share). However, to all those that think that Cap and Trade is the answer, you need to read James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren book. In Europe, we have already gone down the emissions trading road. Please do not follow us.

    Australia has the right idea and is pursuing a better path (carbon taxes). But even this is not the same as Hansen’s Fee and Dividend idea (where governments impose a levy on carbon producers and re-distribute all funds received via the tax system to all taxpayers equally irrespective of income – thereby encouraging individuals to move away from carbon)…

    • otter17 Says:

      I have read Hansen’s book as well, and I have read through his description of the fee and dividend a few times.

      I tried making a spreadsheet to simulate a population with varying amounts of fossil fuel energy consumption, and hence a varying amount of tax dollars paid due to the trickle down of the price from the tax applied at the point of extraction or point of import. Now, one thing I notice is that in a population of widely dispersed usage, lets say companies versus average Joes/Janes, the average Joes and Janes make out like bandits while the companies feel all the pain. Now, my analysis probably isn’t representing a nation’s actual fossil energy usage patterns accurately, but this scenario does bring up the case where a company that is quite efficient still pays a great deal while an individual energy slob could still get paid a dividend.

      I’m not sure how politically possible this idea may be or whether it is the best use of carbon tax funds, unless the plan is modified or I am missing something.

      Hansen seems to be distrustful of the government to disburse the carbon tax funds, but I would imagine the government could assemble a diverse panel of scientists, engineers, and technology-minded economists to assess the best avenues and ratios for giving out the carbon tax funds. For example, some funds could be given to individuals specifically in the form of efficiency or renewable subsidies for homes or a feed-in tariff program for utilities. In a perfect world, the funds would be put to the most effective CO2-reducing places and kept free of lobbying influences.

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