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New study reveals secrets of Earth's worst-ever extinction

Digital writers

Wednesday, August 2, 2017, 8:51 PM - When scientists use words like "The Great Dying," you know they're talking about something pretty catastrophic.

The Great Dying, more properly known as the Permian-Triassic or end-Permian extinction event, happened around 250 million years ago and was the most severe such event in all of prehistory. Every kind of life form living on Earth at the time took a hit. 

By some estimates, more than 90 per cent of marine species, and 70 per cent of land species, died out as a result of the event. Some species were decimated to the point they have no modern analogue. 

As for what triggered the catastrophe, evidence has gradually mounted that a prolonged period of volcanic activity was to blame, and a new study, led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has narrowed down exactly where and when such activity was the worst.

WATCH THIS: Inside a volcano via Google street view

An area of prolonged volcanism in what is now Siberia, known as the Siberian Traps, would have covered much of the surface in lava flows around the time of the extinction. However, it wouldn't be the lava that triggered the extinction, but the release of trillions of tonnes of gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, and the USGS study concludes this happened during a specific period when the lava "intruded" into an area of sediments rich in those gases.

Science news website IFLS explains the carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide would have initially limited the amount of sunlight penetrating Earth's atmosphere, stunting photosynthesis among plant-life, which would have had devastating knock-on effects down the food chain. The carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, would have kicked in, increasing global temperatures by 8oC and triggering runaway climate change.

This resulted in the extreme collapse of the vast majority of Earth's lifeforms, though this would have taken place over thousands of years -- a relatively short period of time when compared to the billions of years of Earth's prehistory.

RELATED: 'Firehose' of Lava Flows From Kilauea Volcano into Sea

SOURCES: USGS | Nature Communications | IFLS

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