The explosion of a volcano located in present-day China might have caused a mass extinction 260 million years ago, adding more evidence that volcanoes might have been to blame for some of the world’s most catastrophic die-offs. Because the eruptions occurred in a shallow sea the researchers were able to study both the volcanic rock and the overlying layer of sedimentary rock containing fossilized marine life [AP], giving researchers a better picture of how the explosion altered the balance of life.
The injection of hot lava in a sea would have produced a massive cloud formation that could spread around the world, cooling the planet and producing acid rain [AP], according to the study, which was published in Science and led by paleontologist Paul Wignall. Based on analysis of the volcanic and sedimentary rock at the eruption site, the scientists hypothesized that ash and lava spewed from a sea covering the volcano, showering plants and animals with atmospheric carbon. “When fast flowing, low viscosity magma meets shallow sea it’s like throwing water into a chip pan there’s spectacular explosion producing gigantic clouds of steam” [Telegraph], says Wignall.
During the Permian Period (299 to 251 million years ago) at the tail end of the Paleozoic era, most of Earth’s land was still united in Pangaea, and amphibians and archosaurs (proto-dinosaurs) roamed the land while cephalopods and foraminifers populated the waters [Scientific American]. While the mid-Permian extinction event of 260 million years ago wasn’t as drastic as the extinction event known as “the great dying” that marked the end of the Permian Period, researchers say it still may have killed half of all life on the planet.
The volcano is one of a family of violent volcanoes known as large igneous deposits, or LIPs–a group scientists have postulated may coincide with a handful of mass extinctions throughout history. “Every crisis in the past 300 million years coincides with a LIP eruption,” Wignall says. “So there’s clearly some connection” [Discovery News].
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Image: flickr / Fabian Bromann