The greatest mass extinction in Earths history also may have been one of the slowest, according to a study that casts further doubt on the extinction-by-meteor theory.
Creeping environmental stress fueled by volcanic eruptions and global warming was the likely cause of the Great Dying 250 million years ago, said USC doctoral student Catherine Powers.
Writing in the November issue of the journal Geology, Powers and her adviser David Bottjer, professor of earth sciences at USC, describe a slow decline in the diversity of some common marine organisms.
The decline began millions of years before the disappearance of 90 percent of Earths species at the end of the Permian era, Powers shows in her study.
More damaging to the meteor theory, the study finds that organisms in the deep ocean started dying first, followed by those on ocean shelves and reefs, and finally those living near shore.
Something has to be coming from the deep ocean, Powers said. Something has to be coming up the water column and killing these organisms.
That something probably was hydrogen sulfide, according to Powers, who cited studies from the University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Arizona and the Bottjer laboratory at USC.
Those studies, combined with the new data from Powers and Bottjer, support a model that attributes the extinction to enormous volcanic eruptions that released carbon dioxide and methane, triggering rapid global warming.
The warmer ocean water would have lost some of its ability to retain oxygen, allowing water rich in hydrogen sulfide to well up from the deep (the gas comes from anaerobic bacteria at the bottom of the ocean).
If large amounts of hydrogen sulfide escaped into the atmosphere, the gas
would have killed most forms of life and also damaged the ozone shield,
increasing the level of harmful ultraviolet radiation reaching the planets
|Contact: Carl Marziali|
University of Southern California