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Scientists Study Permian Mass Extinction Event As Lesson For 21st Century 235

Posted by Soulskill
from the no-need-to-help-it-along dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "About 252 million years ago, cracks in the Earth's crust in Siberia caused vast amounts of lava to spill out and blanket the region with about 6,000,000 cubic kilometers of molten material—enough to cover the continental U.S. at a one mile depth. It triggered a huge change in climate, causing a mass extinction event that killed roughly 90 percent of life on earth. Now Helen Thompson writes in the Smithsonian that a team at MIT has focused its efforts on this major extinction event, which marks the end of the Permian period and the beginning of the Triassic period. Their results suggest that the die-out happened a lot faster than previously thought — perhaps over a span of only 60,000 years. The shorter time scale means that organisms would have had less time to react and adapt to changes in climate, atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidity. Without the ability to adapt, they died. Other mass extinction events have also been narrowed down to short timeframes. The asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period only took about 32,000 years. A similar study of another mass extinction triggered by volcanic eruptions at the end of the Triassic period suggests it lasted less than 5,000 years. Even though all of these extinction events were caused by different things, the ecosystem collapse happened very quickly. 'Whatever the causes of the extinctions may be, and it looks like there are very different causes for some of them, the biosphere may collapse in very similar ways once it gets beyond a tipping point,' says Doug Erwin. Some scientists see the end of the Permian as a lesson for the 21st century (PDF) and say that understanding the conditions leading up to, within, and after a mass extinction event may help us to avoid human-induced ecosystem collapses in the future. As Erwin puts it, 'you don't want to start a mass extinction, because once a mass extinction begins, the prognosis is pretty grim.'"
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Scientists Study Permian Mass Extinction Event As Lesson For 21st Century

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  • Is the lesson "let 90% of all life forms die out so the re-filling of ecological niches leads to greater biodiversity, and the possible re-emergence of the dinosaurs"? Because if so, dinosaurs are indeed pretty badass.

    • Not like the dinosaurs are missing, really. I have a dinosaur feeder in my backyard, and it's usually pretty busy with the branch of dinosauria that survived. My favorites are the yellow-butted warblers....
  • ...like a mass-extinction party cause a mass-extinction party lasts between 5,000 and 60,000 years, and is pretty grim.
  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @05:24PM (#46289993) Homepage

    1) Super Volcano

    2) Asteroid

    3) Intelligent life evolves.

    • Not even close (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @05:59PM (#46290313)

      The most destructive event was the evolution of blue-green algae, which killed off almost everything living on the planet at that time because of their poisonous waste product (oxygen).

      • by gurps_npc (621217)
        This is a good answer that I forgot. Call it #4
      • by Nimey (114278)

        Mod parent up. That event is called the Oxygen Catastrophe for a reason.

      • Let's not forget the RNA -> protein coding transformations, that created organisms able to use new kinds of amino-acids which may have killed everything else on Earth. Several transitions where only a single lineage survived.

    • by PRMan (959735) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @06:03PM (#46290353)
      You forgot "Global Flood".
      • by dryeo (100693)

        Geology disproved the global flood theory a few hundred years ago. Unless you want to argue the trickster set things up to trick us in which case all religions are just tricks as well.

    • by deathcloset (626704) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @07:10PM (#46290867) Journal
      OK, very funny, though a bit tired of an observation. Humans are a disease, humans are a plague, yes yes, we've heard it before and we've seen the terrible things we have been doing, and yet I have to point something out here.

      Intelligent life, while admittedly is a potential cause of, is actually the first possible defense that this planet's ecosystem has evolved against an extinction level event.

      Stopping a super volcano might still be a bit of a stretch at this current time (give it time though), but the whole asteroid thing - intelligent life actually might have a chance, even right now, of stopping another big whack to the planet.

      Think about how the shell evolved: might intelligent life be some kind of earth shell? some kind of life shield?

      To be clear, I don't ascribe to some magical teleological aspect of the universe, nor some gaia hypotesis: I'm not saying this is WHY we are here or WHY we were made - but hey, shells evolve big and small - why couldn't we, humanity, become life and earths greatest ally?

      Sure, we mightn't, but why we shouldn't nor couldn't?
      • We should - it's our home, after all, and we'd be protecting ourselves.

        But we seem more interested in claiming the Permian never happened, and trying to wipe out most life on the planet.

  • Aren't we already? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tmann72 (2473512) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @05:24PM (#46290001)
    Aren't we already in a human caused mass extinction? How many life forms have been wiped off the planet in the last 2000 years? Faster than the natural rate I'm sure, and it's ongoing.
  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @05:24PM (#46290007) Homepage Journal

    These extinctions always seem to take place at the transition from one period to another.

    So I'd recommend being extra double careful round those times.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by NettiWelho (1147351)

      These extinctions always seem to take place at the transition from one period to another.

      So I'd recommend being extra double careful round those times.

      So you are saying slashdot beta could cause a mass extinction event?

    • by Kjella (173770)

      Hint: If you ever left your basement and went out to find real women - those are the ones with boobies you look at on the PC but they won't look like supermodels, you'd find that this is already extremely common knowledge.

  • by TeachingMachines (519187) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @05:26PM (#46290025) Homepage Journal

    If you aren't concerned about this subject, you should be. It is possible that a 4C increase would lead to a 10C increase, wiping out nearly everyone and everything. A good BBC summary of the Permian mass extinction can be found here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... [youtube.com]

    For a really unsettling update:
    http://guymcpherson.com/2013/0... [guymcpherson.com]

    • by scamper_22 (1073470) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @06:07PM (#46290381)

      How do you come to the conclusion that a 4-10C rise will wipe out nearly everyone and everything?

      I just never understood this mentality that rising temperatures will have an existential threat to humanity.

      I'm not down playing it by any stretch. I'm sure mass areas will need to be evacuated. Farmland will be lost. Extreme weather will become more common. Flooding will take over entire cities. Some areas will become totally uninhabitable...

      But I just don't see that being an existential threat to humanity. We're not blindly ruled by nature. We have irrigation systems. We can build better shelters. We can relocate to cooler parts of the planet that would become more habitable. We can control the climate we live in via AC and heating...

      It will simply take a lot to truly wipe us out... and I'm just not convinced a 4-10C will be death of humanity.

      • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @06:39PM (#46290651) Homepage

        Here is the issue: At present, with only mild resource constraints on the major economies, those political entities are within a couple of hair's breadths away from going after each others throats. Fast forward to a time when climate changes disrupt most of those economies. Arable lands may change (not necessarily increase or decrease). If that happens, the losing country may get mighty upset. Fisheries may change provoking resource pressures on countries. Millions of people will be under pressure to leave areas that are negatively effected. Millions of other people just might not welcome those refuges with open arms and open wallets.

        Couple with the fact that the human population is scheduled to double in the next generation or two and you have the perfect storm for some serious resource competition.

        All wars are resource wars.

        • you left water off of that (otherwise spot on assessment)

          Canada should be very, very scared.

        • by Frobnicator (565869) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @08:58PM (#46291609) Journal

          No, it is not millions of people.

          BILLIONS of people will be displaced if the water level rises even a moderate amount. Here is a fun toy [geology.com] It only covers part of the world, but the hyperlinked areas are illuminating.

          Notice how even a small increase will shut down some of the most populated regions of the world as the cities are right on the coast. China will likely see a billion displaced. India might have a a half billion displaced.

          The US might see only around 40 million displaced, but having New York, San Francisco, LA, Houston, Miami, and a bunch of others at least partially underwater or seasonally flooded will be difficult enough. That means rebuilding the infrastructure for millions of people in the United States alone. When Hurricane Katrina type flooding becomes an annual event due to higher sea levels, continuously rebuilding the cities will not be an option. People will be displaced and the annually-flooded buildings looted and condemned.

          Wars are very likely. Look at India losing about half of its useful land and displacing so many people; suddenly all the land to the North looks mighty inviting, even with their arsenals. The Nile Delta flooding could displace seven million; there isn't much nearby green on the map for them to move to within the country. Netherlands probably won't survive as we know it, so what about erasing the line between them and Germany? That one at least has a chance of being somewhat civil.

          When you combine the stress of losing a lot of land, some countries having their land vanish almost completely, and billions of displaced individuals, tensions are going to skyrocket very quickly.

          Long-term real estate investors and the filthy rich have been picking up tracts of land in places that are elevated, cool, and have fresh water sources. Most people haven't really noticed.

          • by khallow (566160)

            BILLIONS of people will be displaced if the water level rises even a moderate amount.

            Over the course of centuries let us recall. The US alone has routine infrastructure capable of moving the entire population of the US every year (and 50 or so million people routinely use that infrastructure to move each year). And most land is valuable for what it can be used for in the next few decades, not it's supposed value a century from now.

            • by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2NO@SPAMgdargaud.net> on Thursday February 20, 2014 @04:18AM (#46293079) Homepage

              Over the course of centuries let us recall

              No, because it's going to happen in bursts, Katrina style. Nobody will do anything preventively, then you'll have one or two ruined city with 10M people to move overnight. Then 5 years later rinse and repeat somewhere else. If all those people planned to move on their own free will, it would already be problematic to absorb in a healthy country with healthy economics. But when the shit hit the fans there's gonna be slums all over for a very long time.

        • by khallow (566160)

          Couple with the fact that the human population is scheduled to double in the next generation or two

          It's not. Current projections are that global population caps about 50% higher than today.

          It's also worth noting that the countries which have the population problem don't have the nukes.

      • I'm too am not convinced a 4-10C will be death of humanity.
        However, losing 90% of the species means we lose a huge part of the ecosystem, and we depend on that ecosystem for far more than most folks understand.
        Part two is that the world is already full of people. If anyone wants to migrate, they'll have to fight for it--which is not unknown to happen.
        imo, most all the huge wars in the past have happened because of too many people and too few resources. Look forward to more as resources die off.
        • Yeop, I agree.

          But the problems will also be highly local. By that I mean some areas will be relatively okay. Others will be devastated. But most of us seem to cope and have coped just fine when devastating things happen in another part of the world.

          Genocides happen, millions die... those of us not in the area seem to get by.
          Wars and civil strife happen in Syria, the middle east, Africa... most of us not in the area get by okay.
          Africa as a whole is already a crap hole... and most of us go through our days ok

      • by stjobe (78285) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @06:53PM (#46290761) Homepage

        At the end of the Permian era, 250m years ago, the global temperature rose by six degrees. That wiped out 95% of all life on earth.

        That's why people come to that conclusion; it has happened before.

        That, and the fact that just a few degrees may well kill off just about all marine life, raise sea levels, create deserts where there's currently farmland, melt the permafrost (releasing massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere, further accelerating global warming), melt the polar ice caps and the glaciers, deforest the rain forests, and basically make the world a hell-hole.

        Sure, humanity could possibly survive; but at what cost and what kind of life would it be? We can't build AC and heating for the whole ecosystem...

        Here's an interesting doomsday summary, degree by degree, from one to six degrees: http://globalwarming.berrens.nl/globalwarming.htm [berrens.nl]

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Why do you think it will stop at 10c? That's the feed back loop.
        However, lets look at 10c, shall we?

        Farmland dries up, wind has more energy. more dustbowls, almost no farmland. Increased rain washing away soil, and increase acidity and algae die offs mean are main O2 generator is dying rapidly.

        Are glacier heat sinks will be gone, and there will be nothing to cool the ocean. The sea level rises, removing a lot of livable area.
        Live stock will be severely crippled.
        Without a freezing winter, diseases and insets

      • by Kjella (173770) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @08:28PM (#46291437) Homepage

        It's something about the sheer scale of it, at +10C India is the new Sahara. Is anyone going to build AC and irrigation for a billion people there? No, about 99% of them have to move - meaning, they have to invade someone - and they're hardly the only ones. You can have massive crop failures and if there's food for six billion people on a seven billion people planet, I think a lot more than one billion is going to die. Very quickly we could have a cascading failure because the war stops the tractors, destroys farmlands and crops. Maybe they even start employing scorched earth tactics to avoid it falling into enemy hands.

        Going back to living off the land might be hopeless because the fish is dying, the game is dying, the plants are dying because they can't adapt quick enough. We probably don't stand a chance to feed the current population without modern agriculture anyway, the wildlife would soon be spent.You're right, I don't think humans as a race will go extinct, the climate changes alone aren't that bad. The climate changes and WWIII though? That could get rather nasty....

    • So the Guy McPherson article you link to says that in 40 years, humans will probably be extinct.

      Sorry, but that is absolutely idiotic. This is not scientific certainty, this is speculative alarmism, at its worst.
    • by khallow (566160)

      It is possible that a 4C increase would lead to a 10C increase, wiping out nearly everyone and everything.

      Except that it wouldn't. Even a relatively dramatic temperature increase like that leaves Earth quite habitable.

      As to the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction (PTME), it is remarkable how ignorant scientists are and yet these claims keep being made. A few weeks ago, I had to endure a rather pointless argument with another slashdotter who kept claiming that today's CO2 growth rates were at least an order of magnitude greater than those during the PTME. I pointed out that the claim was made on the basis of two

  • With such a massive volcanic eruption, doesn't mass extinction result mainly from dust in the atmosphere, which is blocking sunlight and stopping photosynthesis? And they still find something that can be compared to 21st century?
    • In the 21st century the dust comes from the nuclear war that's triggered by loss or resources.

    • I'm reasonably sure that increased dust levels would likely subside within a few years, maybe a few decades. Radical increases in CO2 and the ensuing acidification in the oceans would take considerably longer to return to something approaching normal levels. That's rather the point. There are multiple ways that CO2 can be barfed into the atmosphere in vast quantities in a relatively short period of time, but getting rid of that CO2 may take a lot longer, and the effects of that rise in the amount of solar r

      • by sexconker (1179573) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @05:57PM (#46290301)

        Why is it so very hard for people to accept that increases in CO2 in the atmosphere, whatever their source, is not a good thing for a lot of species?

        Higher CO2 concentrations and higher temperatures were the staple of the greatest periods of growth in biomass and biodiversity our planet has ever seen. I'm actively working to pump more CO2 into the atmosphere to accelerate this process. Existing species are boring. Lets get some new ones. Don't you liberals like evolution? Why would you actively work against it?

        • Re:Comparable? (Score:4, Informative)

          by ColdWetDog (752185) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @06:43PM (#46290677) Homepage

          Don't you liberals like evolution? Why would you actively work against it?

          Depends on whether or not you're one of the survivors. Hard to know which side of the fence you will fall on when the shit hits the fan. Evolution changes the biosphere, evolution doesn't care whether your DNA and the rest of your corporal assets happen to get passed along.

          There are lots of losers in evolution. You just might be one of them.

        • When the earth gets too hot, the extreme plant growth leads to the rise of giant animals like dinosaurs. We don't want to be eaten by dinosaurs.
          • Don't go getting Randall all worked up again.

          • When the earth gets too hot, the extreme plant growth leads to the rise of giant animals like dinosaurs. We don't want to be eaten by dinosaurs.

            Speak for yourself. Dinolingus and dinolatio are the best.

          • So the extreme plant growth leads to giant animals? How quickly? By Tuesday?

            Dangerous large animals can be made extinct very quickly by things like howitzers. I don't think the dinosaurs will be armed.

            Or were you just making a joke?

      • Why is it so very hard for people to accept that increases in CO2 in the atmosphere, whatever their source, is not a good thing for a lot of species?

        oft times it is because they believe their livelihood depends on their not understanding.

    • Volcanoes emit CO2, though currently not at a rate even close to what we are emitting. However, with a long trend rising intensity of volcanic eruption, volcanoes can emit enough CO2 to substantially warm the planet.
  • Natural outcome (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jovius (974690) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @05:35PM (#46290103)

    Self-inflicted extinction event from anthropogenic activities could be seen as natural negative feedback mechanism. The equilibrium is restored.

    I understand the future for the humanity and multitude of ecosystems may be grim but the nature will thrive nevertheless.

    There are certain boundaries and one is that there's only one Earth. We can affect our future, and it's impossible to escape the consequences.

    • Your point is what, we deserve it? I'd argue that it IS quite possible to escape the consequences: the individuals who did the most to push us to climate change will be dead before the really bad effects happen, or are at least rich enough to make the consequences minor.

      If you're talking about on a species level, well, maybe, but I see little point in such a perspective.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      Just becasue you don't seem to get it, we Only the most outrages hubris assume are talking about the human species. That new equilibrium doesn't have to be one that's survivable by humans..or any species. Venus has an equilibrium.

      Only the most outrages hubris would assume equilibrium = survivable by humans.

  • Crump, Michigan misses out again.

  • So what was the difference between thevolcanic eruptions at the end of the Permian, and the ones at the end of the Triassic?

    I just got the book The Sixth Extinction, and am starting to read it.

  • 5,000 years? 32,000 years? 60,000 years?

    What about next month? Next year?

    In the long run, we'll all be dead. Call me when they figure out how to avoid that, and then we'll talk about thousands of years.

    • by pipedwho (1174327)

      I suspect the actual extinctions took place much more quickly, while the after effects continued long enough that nothing could recover until the planet had stabilised. It's not like an asteroid or volcanic eruption took place and everything gradually died off over many thousands of years.

      It would have been a relatively sudden shock, followed by hell on earth for the event duration, dissipating over the long haul. A few small pockets of relative hospitability would have held out long enough for the rest of

    • by Valdrax (32670)

      In the long run, we'll all be dead. Call me when they figure out how to avoid that, and then we'll talk about thousands of years.

      Why? If you already can't care about the future of other humans, then why should we expect you to be interested in contributing later?

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Well, a good way to start avoiding it is to mitigate global changes.
      "In the long run, we'll all be dead"
      People who say that are the worst of the species.

  • Comet impacts lasted 32,000 years and writing /. stories took 50 seconds.
  • Is someone trying to compare an extinction event that release enough lava to cover the entire earth 12 metres deep to man-made CO2 emissions?

  • by BoRegardless (721219) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @09:00PM (#46291627)

    Once food supply for an animal or human is disrupted, die offs are painfully quick.

    Egypt once had a massive inland lake and streams that eventually dumped into the Nile thousands of years before Christ. Once the climate changed back toward desert, the entire population of humans disappeared in probably decades to a century in that region.

    • by JeffAtl (1737988)

      Why are you assuming they died? Those populations may have just moved to a more habitable area.

      • by dargaud (518470)
        Indeed, it is generally assumed that they moved to the last fertile area around, namely the Nile valley, and this sudden (on a timescale of a few generations) influx of people of various origins led to the great egyptian civilization.
  • by Walking The Walk (1003312) on Wednesday February 19, 2014 @09:42PM (#46291909)

    6,000,000 cubic kilometers of molten material - enough to cover the continental U.S. at a one mile depth.

    I don't think the submitter understands math. One mile is about 1.6 km, so 6,000,000 km^3 of lava would cover an area of 3,750,000 km^2. Yet when I check Wikipedia (and Princeton, and the other top 5 Google results), they all say the Contiguous United States [wikipedia.org] has an area of just over 8,000,000 km^2. That's an awfully big mistake. I hope the actual Stanford paper is of better quality than the Slashdot summary.

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