The Permian mass extinction of 250 million years ago is said to be the Earth’s largest mass extinction. According to the book When Life Nearly Died, approximately 90% of life on Earth was wiped out. Theories for the mass extinction include: massive volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, and global warming. Scientists researching the Permian mass extinction are leaning towards the idea that it was caused by an unprecedented global warming caused by greenhouse gases.
In the journal Paleoworld, a paper was published to shed some light on the Permian mass extinction. Researchers predict that the large amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during this time was from volcanic eruptions. This caused the Earth’s average temperature to increase by 8 to 11 degrees Celsius. Scientists predict that the global temperature during the Permian would have reached 29 degrees Celsius and above. The rise in global temperatures resulted in permafrost melt, causing large amounts of methane to be released into the atmosphere. And according to the paper, methane in the atmosphere is “lethal to most life on land and in the oceans”.
The researchers studied the measurements of gases that were trapped in the mineral calcite from the Permian mass extinction. The vast amount of greenhouse gases found in the mineral calcite has led them to believe that global warming and climate change is what caused most of the life on Earth to die at the end of the Permian period. Carbon dioxide was the trigger to the catastrophe, but when more methane was being released from its frozen state, the effects became apocalyptic.
Feedback on the Permian Mass Extinction Findings
Peter Wadhams, the head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University, believes that this major pulse of methane could have happened during the Permian. However, he thinks that the methane pulse would not have been enough to cause an apocalyptic mass extinction on Earth. Wadhams said that “If there were a large methane release, which is now possible because of the instability of the methane hydrates underneath the Arctic continental shelves, the off-shore waters, that could quite easily give rise to a very large pulse”.
Wadhams is not disregarding the findings from the Paleoworld paper, but believes that the researchers have over exaggerated the effects of the methane hydrates. He even criticised the paper’s title, “Methane hydrate: Killer cause of Earth’s greatest mass extinction”. Yes, the release of methane hydrates in the atmosphere can be catastrophic, but it is not yet definitive whether their effect can be apocalyptic.
Are We on the Road to Another Mass Extinction?
The team of researchers from the United States, Canada, Italy and Germany who discovered these findings say that their information is relevant in dealing with the world’s current global warming problems. Currently the Earth’s average global temperature is 15 degrees Celsius (about half of the predicted average during the Permian mass extinction). The world is currently faced with rising global temperatures and experiencing permafrost melt. Although it remains unclear whether methane can have apocalyptic effects, we must not discredit the negative effects it has on the planet.
Research on the Permian mass extinction gives us some food for thought in what might become of the Earth if we reach the point where our global temperatures rise at an unprecedented rate, if too much methane is released from permafrost and if our climate patterns become grossly unpredictable. According to Tim Palmer, Oxford University physicist, humanity faces an uncertain future. Science has presented the world with a wide range of possibilities for what might lay ahead.