In southern Kansas along the border with Oklahoma, the landscape is not typically Kansas. Instead there are bare hills of red rock, seams of salt and gypsum crystals, looking like "shattered glass." Rock strata that had been filled with fossils farther north here are devoid of signs of ancient life. (Brannen, 2017)
According to the Kansas Geologic Survey, the red color of the Clark County hills comes from the iron oxide in the shale, the silt stone, and sandstone that were deposited some 260 million years ago during the geological period known as the Permian.
Geologic periods are marked by significant events in Earth's history. The break between the Permian and the next period, the Triassic, is known not only by its ordinary name, the Permian-Triassic or P-T boundary, but by an even more ominous name, "the great dying," because the ancient sediments tell the terrifying story of when life on Earth nearly came to an end.
The Permian sediments and those of the preceding period, the Carboniferous, are filled with living organisms. For example, the earliest beetles and flies appear among the Permian fossils as do the first plants that use seeds to propagate themselves. The most familiar of ancient fossils, the trilobites, are well represented as they had been for the previous 300 million years.
Then right around 252 million years ago, these and many other species disappear.
The sediments from all over the world dating from the Triassic are missing 96% of the marine species that had been present during the Permian as are some 70% of the terrestrial vertebrates. Even many species of insects disappeared, something unrepeated in any of the other four extinctions in the geological record.
Over the 3.8 billion year history of life, it is usual for species to become extinct and for others to take their place. But only five times (so far) has there been an extinction on such a massive scale.
In general, we know that there is a relationship between temperature and biodiversity. Biodiversity is positively associated with warmer temperatures. However, in shorter time frames, "increasing temperatures also predict extinction and origination rates [and] that relatively high concentrations of greenhouse gases are associated with periods of low biodiversity; that is, fewer species." (Mayhew, 2012)
A geologic formation in northern Siberia called the Siberian Traps provides a clue to what increased the concentration of greenhouse gases shortly before the P-T boundary and the great extinction.
Here a gigantic volcanic eruption resulted in a geologic formation known as a flood basalt which is what happens when basaltic lava from a volcano literally floods across the landscape like a flood of water.
This largest of all volcanic events in Earth's history began 500,000 years before the P-T boundary as a gigantic plume of superheated magma welling up from Earth's core. Eventually the plume penetrated the crust into a region filled with coal beds. When the lava burst into the surface, the oxygen combined with the superheated coal to explode, "throwing huge clouds of gas (CO2) and fly ash into the stratosphere while the lava spread over more than 2,000,000 square miles (an area the size of western Europe!)
Prevailing western winds distributed carbon-rich materials around the world including into the Sverdrup Basin in the Canadian arctic where it was identified as being the precise composition of fly ash, the by-product of modern coal-fired power plants.
The Siberian Traps event effectively became the world's largest coal fired power plant, whose product was not electricity but the 3 trillion tons of CO2 it is estimated to have put into the atmosphere. (Vaidyantha, 2011)
In normal environmental conditions CO2 dissolves in sea water, combining to form the carbonate (CO3) that is used by marine organisms to create their skeletons and shells. However, too high a concentration of atmospheric CO2 can overwhelm the natural buffering system that keeps the ocean pH slightly alkaline.
In 2015, a New Zealand team tested Permian ocean sediments and found that there had been a rapid decline in the pH in them, which the researchers attributed to the massive amount of CO2 produced by the Siberian Traps. The fly ash that settled to the sea bottom made the ocean not only acidic but also toxic.
So an explanation of the great dying was that it was the result of a 1,000,000 year long perfect storm in which a huge magma plume set massive coal beds alight; burning fossil fuels on a large scale, just as we have been doing "but not over 100 million years. We are unburying it and burning over a timescale of 100 years, a million times faster." (Plait, 2013)
Brannen, Peter (2017). Burning Fossil Fuels Almost Ended Life on All Earth. The Scientific American, July 11, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/a-road-trip-to-the-end-of-the-world/532914/?utm_source=nl-atlantic-daily-071117
GeoKansas (2017). Red Hills —Introduction. Retrieved from http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Extension/redhills/redhills.html
Mayhew, Peter J. & Others (2012). Biodiversity tracks temperature over time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 2012, September 18; 109(36): 15141-15145. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1200844109 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3458383/
Plait, Phil (2013). No Need to Worry About Global Warming, Folks: More Carbon Dioxide Will be Awesome. Bad Astronomy: The Entire Universe in Blog Form, May 10, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/05/10/carbon_dioxide_and_global_warming_more_is_not_better.html
Vaidyanathan, Gayathri (2011). Fly as in the frame for Permian die-off. Nature News, 23 January 2011, Nature doi:10.1038/news.2011.38
Red Hills of Kansas — Kansas Geological Survey: GeoKansas “Red Hills—Introduction.” Retrieved from http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Extension/redhills/redhills.html
Siberian Traps from Volcano Apocalypse — The 5 Most Notorious Eruptions of All Time from Phoenixsic: Astrophysics graduate student blogging about the Universe. Retrieved from https://phoenixsic.wordpress.com/tag/siberian-traps/
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.