8. Jan, 2022

Volcanic winter contributed to ecological catastrophe

A team of scientists from China has identified an early volcanic winter as an additional force that likely contributed to a mass extinction event 250 million years ago in a period called the end-Permian.

Left: The fossil skull of Dinogorgon rubidgei one of the large predators that disappeared during the end-Permian extinction. Photo Jonathan Blair/Corbis. 

The analysis of minerals in southern China indicates that volcano eruption produced a 'volcanic winter' that drastically lowered earth's temperatures -- a change that added to the environmental effects resulting from other phenomena at the time. The research, which appears in the journal Science Advances, examined the end-Permian mass extinction (EPME), which was the most severe extinction event in the past 500 million years, wiping out 80 to 90 percent of species on land and in the sea.

A plausible scenario Most striking was the drastic simultaneous increase in the concentrations of minerals like mercury and copper, suggesting massive volcanic eruptions (on a much larger scale than the current eruptions). The large amounts of sulfuric acid atmospheric aerosols produced a rapid global cooling, followed by a harsh volcanic winter worldwide. Hereafter, the temperature quickly rose again, causing enormous quantities of CO2 to be pumped into the atmosphere, resulting in massive global warming. An additional factor could have been the strong greenhouse gas methane that was released from the melting permafrost, or from the warmed seabed (like we witness in present days). Oceanic acidification may have been another contributing factor. The overall results were devastating, such that forests disappeared to make way for huge bare plains and large predators such as dinos died massively at the end-Permian. This whole process probably took place over hundreds of thousands of years,  contrasting with modern industry-related global warming that started only some hundreds of years ago, in which volcanic activity plays only a minor role.