Boom Goes the Megavolcano
AMegavolcanoes tied to pre-dinosaur mass extinction
In recent years, many scientists have suggested that the so-called End-Triassic Extinction and at least four other known past die-offs were caused at least in part by mega-volcanism and resulting climate change. However, they were unable to tie deposits left by eruptions to biological crashes closely in time. This study provides the tightest link yet, with a newly precise date for the ETE--201,564,000 years ago, exactly the same time as a massive outpouring of lava. “This may not quench all the questions about the exact mechanism of the extinction itself. However, the coincidence in time with the volcanism is pretty much ironclad,” said coauthor Paul Olsen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been investigating the boundary since the 1970s.
The new study unites several pre-existing lines of evidence by aligning them with new techniques for dating rocks. Lead author Terrence Blackburn (then at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; now at the Carnegie Institution) used the decay of uranium isotopes to pull exact dates from basalt, a rock left by eruptions. The basalts analyzed in the study all came from the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), a series of huge eruptions known to have started around 200 million years ago, when nearly all land was massed into one huge continent. The eruptions spewed some 2.5 million cubic miles of lava in four sudden spurts over a 600,000-year span, and initiated a rift that evolved into the Atlantic Ocean; remnants of CAMP lavas are found now in North and South America, and North Africa. The scientists analyzed samples from what are now Nova Scotia, Morocco and the New York City suburbs. (Olsen hammered one from a road cut in the Hudson River Palisades, about 1,900 feet from the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.)
Previous studies have suggested a link between the CAMP eruptions and the extinction, but other researchers’ dating of the basalts had a margin of error of 1 to 3 million years. The new margin of error is only a few thousand years—in geology, an eye blink. Blackburn and his colleagues showed that the eruption in Morocco was the earliest, with ones in Nova Scotia and New Jersey coming about 3,000 and 13,000 years later, respectively. Sediments below that time contain pollen, spores and other fossils characteristic of the Triassic era; in those above, the fossils disappear. Among the creatures that vanished were eel-like fish called conodonts, early crocodilians, tree lizards and many broad-leaved plants. The dating is further strengthened by a layer of sediment just preceding the extinction containing mineral grains providing evidence of one of earth’s many periodic reversals of magnetic polarity. This particular reversal, labeled E23r, is consistently located just below the boundary, making it a convenient marker, said coauthor Dennis Kent, a paleomagnetism expert who is also at Lamont-Doherty. With the same layers found everywhere the researchers have looked so far, the eruptions “had to be a hell of an event,” said Kent.
Olsen has painstakingly cataloged the layers around the time of the End Triassic, and the initial phase of the extinction occurs in just one layer—meaning the event took 20,000 years at most. But, he said, “it could have taken much less. This is the level of resolution we have now, but it’s the ‘less’ part that is the more important, and that’s what we are working on now.”
Many scientists assume that giant eruptions would have sent sulfurous particles into the air that darkened the skies, creating a multi-year winter that would have frozen out many creatures. A previous study by Kent and Rutgers University geochemist Morgan Schaller has also shown that each pulse of volcanism doubled the air’s concentration of carbon dioxide—a major component of volcanic gases. Following the cold pulses, the warming effects of this greenhouse gas would have lasted for millennia, wiping out creatures that could not take too much heat. (It was already quite hot to begin with at that time; even pre-eruption CO2 levels were higher than those of today.) Fossils show that heat-sensitive plants especially suffered; there is also evidence that the increased CO2 caused chemical reactions that made the oceans more acidic, causing populations of shell-building creatures to collapse. As if this were not enough, there is also some evidence that a large meteorite hit the Earth at the time of the extinction--but that factor seems far less certain. A much stronger case has been made for the extinction of the dinosaurs by a meteorite some 65 million years ago—an event that opened the way for the evolution and dominance of mammals, including human beings. Volcanism may have been involved in that extinction as well, with the meteorite delivering the final blow.)
Paul Renne, a researcher at the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California, who studies the End Triassic but was not involved in the Science paper, said the study was “part of a growing pattern in which we see that the major ecosystem crises were triggered” by volcanism. He said the new data “make the case stronger than it was. … The pendulum continues to swing in favor of that idea.” Of the actual mechanism that killed creatures, he said climate change was the most popular suspect. But, he added, “We still don’t have any way yet of knowing exactly how much CO2 was put into the atmosphere at that time, and what it did. If we did, we would then be able to say to people, ‘Look folks, this is what we’re facing now, and here’s what we have to do about it. But we don’t know that yet.”
The other authors of the study are Samuel Bowring and Noah McLean (MIT); John Puffer (Rutgers); Greg McHone (Grand Manan, New Brunswick, Canada); E. Troy Rasbury (Stony Brook University); and Mohammed Et-Touhami (Université Mohammed Premier, Oujda, Morocco).
Publication of press-releases or other out-sourced content does not signify endorsement or affiliation of any kind.