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When Everything On Earth Died

Based on fossil records, around 252 million years ago over 90% of all species on Earth died out, effectively resetting evolution. (Image: Lunar and Planetary Institute)

Hey, remember that one time when 90% of all life on Earth got wiped out?

I don’t either. But it’s a good thing it happened because otherwise none of us would be here to… not remember it. Still, the end-Permian Extinction — a.k.a. the Great Dying — was very much a real crisis for life on Earth 252 million years ago. It makes the K-T extinction event of the dinosaurs look like a rather nice day by comparison, and is literally the most catastrophic event known to have ever befallen Earthly life. Luckily for us (and pretty much all of the species that have arisen since) the situation eventually sorted itself out. But how long did that take?

An alien Earth: what our planet looked like during the time of the Permian Extinction. (Via The Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo, NASA, Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc., and The PaleoMap Project)

The Permian Extinction was a perfect storm of geological events that resulted in the disappearance of over 90% of life on Earth — both on land and in the oceans. (Or ocean, as I should say, since at that time the land mass of Earth had gathered into one enormous continent — called Pangaea — and thus there was one ocean, referred to as Panthalassa.) A combination of increased volcanism, global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification and anoxia, and the loss of shallow sea habitats (due to the single large continent) set up a series of extinctions that nearly wiped our planet’s biological slate clean.

Exactly why the event occurred and how Earth returned to a state in which live could once again thrive is still debated by scientists, but it’s now been estimated that the recovery process took about 10 million years.

(Read: Recovering From a Mass Extinction is Slow Going)

Research by Dr. Zhong-Qiang Chen from the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, and Professor Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, UK, show that repeated setbacks in conditions on Earth continued for 5 to 6 million years after the initial wave of extinctions. It appears that every time life would begin to recover within an ecological niche, another wave of environmental calamities would break.

“Life seemed to be getting back to normal when another crisis hit and set it back again,” said Prof. Benton. “The carbon crises were repeated many times, and then finally conditions became normal again after five million years or so.”

“The causes of the killing – global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification – sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.”

– Michael Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol

It wasn’t until the severity of the crises abated that life could gradually begin reclaiming and rebuilding Earth’s ecosystems. New forms of life appeared, taking advantage of open niches to grab a foothold in a new world. It was then that many of the ecosystems we see today made their start, and opened the door for the rise of Earth’s most famous prehistoric critters: the dinosaurs.

“The event had re-set evolution,” said Benton. “However, the causes of the killing – global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification – sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.”

The team’s research was published in the May 27 issue of Nature Geoscience. Read more on the University of Bristol’s website here.


A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kevin W. Parker June 3, 2012, 10:11 PM

    The statement that the Permian Extinction wiped out 90% of all life actually understates the situation: 90% of all SPECIES were wiped out, which probably means that something like 99.8% of all living things were wiped out.

  • Aqua4U June 3, 2012, 10:32 PM

    Whewy… Somebody close that window, it’s down right gusty in here! And HOT too! The Peta tons of methane being released as the arctic permafrost melts has apparently already ignited quite the row!

    What I find totally engrossing within this article, is contemplating the suggestion that a HUGE _variety_ of species have gone extinct upon the Earth. It’s not too much a stretch of the imagination to consider the possibility that out of all those millions of variations in the evolutionary scheme of things, other intelligent species may have evolved over the Milena?

    To continue this line of thought… Imagine that an advanced civilization of reptilian, mammal/reptilian, or other mixed genome large brained or ‘hive brain’ animals had evolved and had advanced far beyond our current understanding or expectations. There they were, some 250 million years ago (Blind guess at any date) looking up at the stars. Some of them decide to visit those stars and begin to prepare for the journey. Most of the population thinks the idea insane and dismisses the call for recruits. The ship is built and tens of thousands board and are placed in hibernation. The ship leaves…

    Eons pass… the ship arrives at it’s destination and begins terraforming the most suitable nearby planet. Eventually several planets around as many stars are transformed into acceptable habit and populated.

    Actually….. They’ve come back several times to see what happened to Earth after the great calamity. Yes, they knew about that… even saw it coming. The message about the impending destruction reached them several hundred years after the catastrophe…

    ~@; )

  • Aqua4U June 3, 2012, 10:42 PM

    Addendum: Returnee’s to Earth realize that life on the surface is now impossible for them. They prefer to breath a methane enhanced atmosphere.. laced with hydrocarbons… get it?

  • copernicus34 June 4, 2012, 9:16 AM

    All you global warming apocolyptics are bunch of quacks. when has the climate of this planet ever been unchanging? i’m not even arguing whether or not the planet is heating up or not. has anybody been looking at possibly other causes? it sort of alludes to mr icrowell’s little story about the critter defending her nest from a like-species but totally ignoring the real (or perhaps more lethal) threat. all of our eyes and attention is focused on global warming, but nobody is looking at possibly other causes. NOBODY!! mr icrowell thinks we are stupid, he/she is right, but perhaps for a different reason he/she estimates. tired of this name calling bullcrap (deniers, alarmists) wtf ever. convince us, stop putting this in the realm of politics (where you know everything gets turned on its head) and convince the planet with hard statistically proven facts. not the hockey stick, thats been summarily debunked. bring back science, brink back skepticism, its why we (as humans) have achieved so much. where would we be without a few (maybe more) discerning minds throughout time questioning the very foundation of then ‘modern thinking’. to the global warming quacks ‘take your head out of the sand’, most of us skeptics do indeed believe the world is round, and not flat. convince us, convince me why we must give up what we have achieved, and send billions to their deaths (because thats what we are talking about with the economic cataclysm you all want to unleash on the planet). It really is funny when i read nowadays, some astronomy sites (this one is not too much in that category) that wax poetic about global warming. quick to say what percentage of climatologists believe this or that, without a mention of how many statisticians ‘believe’ the same. take a look at the climatologist field. everybody has a connection to everybody else, they are a very small group, easy i think (knowing a little about human behavior) to cabal together a like-minded theory (and thats what it is right? a theory?), especially with the amount of money involved. we are all quick to jump on people, politicians, even scientists with the dreaded ‘ties to oil’ but apparently all the climatologists are saints, with only the best at heart.

  • ITSRUF June 4, 2012, 7:04 PM

    OMG. Temperatures are 25 degrees cooler now than they were during the Permian Era. This proves an ice age is coming!

    (Just making a point) — See how easy it is to be misled when one “cherry-picks” data that fits their hypothesis?

    • illumined June 5, 2012, 12:35 AM

      Looking at this is very instructive. http://www.scotese.com/climate.htm

      Appearently when the extinction event actually happened the global average temperature was nearly twice what it is today.

      Looking around at some of the temperature change predictions for the end of the 21st century, I haven’t seen one that’s anywhere near that. Given that by the end of the century will certainly be out or nearly out of all fossil fuels, it’s safe to say that’s probably as high as it will go.

  • Torbjörn Larsson June 4, 2012, 9:40 PM

    TL;DR. But calling climate scientists “quacks” is like calling licensed doctors “quacks”.