Scientists Think They Know What Caused the Deadliest Mass Extinction in the History of the Earth

This illustration shows the percentage of marine animals that went extinct during Earth's worst extinction at the end of the Permian era by latitude, from the model (black line) and from the fossil record (blue dots).A greater percentage of marine animals survived in the tropics than at the poles. The color of the water shows the temperature change, with red being most severe warming and yellow less warming. At the top is the supercontinent Pangaea, with massive volcanic eruptions emitting carbon dioxide. The images below the line represent some of the 96 percent of marine species that died during the event. [Includes fossil drawings by Ernst Haeckel/Wikimedia; Blue crab photo by Wendy Kaveney/Flickr; Atlantic cod photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Wikimedia; Chambered nautilus photo by John White/CalPhotos.]Justin Penn and Curtis Deutsch/University of Washington

Humanity can have a love/hate relationship with itself, but there’s no denying that we’re the pinnacle of evolution on Earth as things stand now. But it took an awfully long time for evolution to produce beings such as we. Several times, life had to drag itself back from near annihilation.

The largest extinction setback was the Permian-Triassic extinction, also called the “Great Dying,” some 252 million years ago. Up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species went extinct.

What happened?

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A Supernova Exploded Dangerously Close to Earth 2.5 Million Years Ago

In its 4.5 billion year history, Earth has had to run the gauntlet. Numerous catastrophes have imperilled the planet, from massive impacts, to volcanic conflagrations, to frigid episodes of snowball Earth. Yet life persists.

Among all of the hazards that threaten a planet, the most potentially calamitous might be a nearby star exploding as a supernova.

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A New Mass Extinction has been Discovered, Wiping Out Life 233 Million Years Ago, and Leading to the Rise of the Dinosaurs

Most everybody knows that the dinosaurs perished rapidly in a tumultuous extinction, caused by an asteroid strike about 66 million years ago. But it looks like another extinction prior to the appearance of the dinosaurs paved the way for their long reign. That extinction took place about 233 million years ago.

And scientists have only now discovered it.

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Did Snowball Earth Happen Because of a Sudden Drop in Sunlight?

Hundreds of millions of years ago, Earth went through two episodes of severe glaciation. These two episodes—the Sturtian and the Marinoan glaciations—occured during the Earth’s Cryogenian Period. The Cryogenian lasted from about 720 million to 635 million years ago.

The phenomenon is called “Snowball Earth” and both instances of it happened in pretty quick succession. And while a planet encased in ice and snow sounds devastating, these episodes may have paved the way for the development of complex life.

The question is, what caused the Earth to freeze over like that?

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It Was Almost Certainly an Asteroid Impact that Wiped Out the Dinosaurs. In Fact, Volcanoes Might Have Helped Life Recover

It seems almost certain that an asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs. But only almost. Another competing theory won’t completely go away: the extinction-by-volcano theory.

A new study from the UK piles more evidence on the asteroid side of the debate, while adding a new volcanic twist. These researchers say that volcanic activity actually helped life recover from the asteroid strike.

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During Mass Extinction Events, Volcanoes Were Releasing About the Same Amount of CO2 as We Are Today

200 million years ago, a mass extinction event wiped out about 76% of all species on Earth—both terrestrial and marine. That event was called the end-Triassic extinction, or the Jurassic-Triassic (J-T) extinction event. At that time, the world experienced many of the same things as Earth is facing now, including a warming climate and the acidification of the oceans.

A new paper shows that pulses of volcanic eruptions were responsible, and that those pulses released the same amount of CO2 as humans are releasing today.

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The Evidence is Leaning More and More Towards an Asteroid Ending the Dinosaurs

Which camp are you in: volcanoes? Or asteroids?

When it comes to the extinction of the dinosaurs, science has whittled it down to those two possibilities. The asteroid strike has been the leading candidate for quite some time now, but those darn volcanoes refuse to stand down.

A new study is presenting even more evidence that it was the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, and not volcanoes.

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A Supernova 2.6 Million Years Ago Could Have Wiped Out the Ocean’s Large Animals

Artist's impression of a Type II supernova. Credit: ESO

For many years, scientists have been studying how supernovae could affect life on Earth. Supernovae are extremely powerful events, and depending on how close they are to Earth, they could have consequences ranging from the cataclysmic to the inconsequential. But now, the scientists behind a new paper say they have specific evidence linking one or more supernova to an extinction event 2.6 million years ago.

About 2.6 million years ago, one or more supernovae exploded about 50 parsecs, or about 160 light years, away from Earth. At that same time, there was also an extinction event on Earth, called the Pliocene marine megafauna extinction. Up to a third of the large marine species on Earth were wiped out at the time, most of them living in shallow coastal waters.

“This time, it’s different. We have evidence of nearby events at a specific time.” – Dr. Adrian Melott, University of Kansas.

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A Rapid Rise in Temperature Led to the Worst Extinction in our Planet’s History

This illustration shows the percentage of marine animals that went extinct during Earth's worst extinction at the end of the Permian era by latitude, from the model (black line) and from the fossil record (blue dots).A greater percentage of marine animals survived in the tropics than at the poles. The color of the water shows the temperature change, with red being most severe warming and yellow less warming. At the top is the supercontinent Pangaea, with massive volcanic eruptions emitting carbon dioxide. The images below the line represent some of the 96 percent of marine species that died during the event. [Includes fossil drawings by Ernst Haeckel/Wikimedia; Blue crab photo by Wendy Kaveney/Flickr; Atlantic cod photo by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Wikimedia; Chambered nautilus photo by John White/CalPhotos.]Justin Penn and Curtis Deutsch/University of Washington

Everyone knows about the extinction of the dinosaurs. A cataclysmic asteroid strike about 66 million years ago (mya) caused the Death of the Dinosaurs. But there’ve been several mass extinctions in the Earth’s history, and they didn’t involve killer asteroids. The worst extinction was caused by a rapid rise in temperature.

Earth’s most severe extinction occurred long before the killer asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. It happened some 252 mya, and it marked the end of what’s called the Permian Period. The extinction is known as the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, the End-Permian Extinction, or more simply, “The Great Dying.” Up to 70% of terrestrial vertebrates and up to 96% of all marine species were extinguished during The Great Dying.

How did it happen? Could it happen again?

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Does Climate Change Explain Why We Don’t See Any Aliens Out There?

In the 1950s, famed physicist Enrico Fermi posed the question that encapsulated one of the toughest questions in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI): “Where the heck is everybody?” What he meant was, given the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years), the sheer number of galaxies (between 1 and 2 trillion), and the overall number of planets, why has humanity still not found evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence?

This question, which has come to be known as the “Fermi Paradox”, is something scientists continue to ponder. In a new study, a team from the University of Rochester considered that perhaps Climate Change is the reason. Using a mathematical model based on the Anthropocene, they considered how civilizations and planet systems co-evolve and whether or not intelligent species are capable of living sustainability with their environment.

The study, titled “The Anthropocene Generalized: Evolution of Exo-Civilizations and Their Planetary Feedback“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Astrobiology. The study was led by Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, with the assistance of Jonathan Carroll-Nellenback (a senior computational scientist at Rochester) Marina Alberti of the University of Washington, and Axel Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry.

Today, Climate Change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. Thanks to changes that have taken place in the past few centuries – i.e. the industrial revolution, population growth, the growth of urban centers and reliance on fossil fuels – humans have had a significant impact on the planet. In fact, many geologists refer to the current era as the “Anthropocene” because humanity has become the single greatest factor affecting planetary evolution.

In the future, populations are expected to grow even further, reaching about 10 billion by mid-century and over 11 billion by 2100. In that time, the number of people who live within urban centers will also increase dramatically, increasing from 54% to 66% by mid-century. As such, the quesiton of how billions of people can live sustainably has become an increasingly important one.

Prof. Frank, who is also the author of the new book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth (which draws on this study), conducted this study with his colleagues in order to address the issue Climate Change in an astrobiological context. As he explained in a University of Rochester press release:

“Astrobiology is the study of life and its possibilities in a planetary context. That includes ‘exo-civilizations’ or what we usually call aliens. If we’re not the universe’s first civilization, that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses.”

Using the Anthropocene as an example, one can see how civilization-planet systems co-evolve, and how a civilization can endanger itself through growth and expansion – in what is known as a “progress trap“. Basically, as civilizations grow, they consume more of the planet’s resources, which causes changes in the planet’s conditions. In this sense, the fate of a civilization comes down to how they use their planet’s resources.

In order to illustrate this process Frank and his collaborators developed a mathematical model that considers civilizations and planets as a whole. As Prof. Frank explained:

“The point is to recognize that driving climate change may be something generic. The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it.”

The model was also based on case studies of extinct civilizations, which included the famous example of what became of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui (aka. Easter Island). According to archaeological studies, the people of the South Pacific began colonizing this island between 400 and 700 CE and its population peaked at 10,000 sometime between 1200 and 1500 CE.

Professor Adam Frank, who led the study in how civilization-planet systems evolve. Credit: University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster

By the 18th century, however, the inhabitants had depleted their resources and the population declined to just 2000. This example raises the important concept known as “carrying capacity”, which is the maximum number of species an environment can support. As Frank explained, Climate Change is essentially how the Earth responds to the expansion of our civilization:

“If you go through really strong climate change, then your carrying capacity may drop, because, for example, large-scale agriculture might be strongly disrupted. Imagine if climate change caused rain to stop falling in the Midwest. We wouldn’t be able to grow food, and our population would diminish.”

Using their mathematical model, the team identified four potential scenarios that might occur on a planet. These include the Die-Off scenario, the Sustainability scenario, the Collapse Without Resource Change scenario, and the Collapse With Resource Change scenario. In the Die-Off scenario, the population and the planet’s state (for example, average temperatures) rise very quickly.

This would eventually lead to a population peak and then a rapid decline as changing planetary conditions make it harder for the majority of the population to survive. Eventually, a steady population level would be achieved, but it would only be a fraction of what the peak population was. This scenario occurs when civilizations are unwilling or unable to change from high-impact resources (i.e. oil, coal, clear-cutting) to sustainable ones (renewable energy).

Four scenarios for the fate of civilizations and their planets, based on mathematical models developed by Adam Frank and his collaborators. Credit: University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw

In the Sustainability scenario, the population and planetary conditions both rise, but eventually come to together with steady values, thus avoiding any catastrophic effects. This scenario occurs when civilizations recognize that environmental changes threaten their existence and successfully make the transition from high-impact resources to sustainable ones.

The final two scenarios  – Collapse Without Resource Change and Collapse With Resource Change – differ in one key respect. In the former, the population and temperature both rise rapidly until the population reaches a peak and begins to drop rapidly – though it is not clear if the species itself survives. In the latter, the population and temperature rise rapidly, but the populations recognizes the danger and makes the transition. Unfortunately, the change comes too late and the population collapses anyway.

At present, scientists cannot say with any confidence which of these fates will be the one humanity faces. Perhaps we will make the transition before it is too late, perhaps not. But in the meantime, Frank and his colleagues hope to use more detailed models to predict how planets will respond to civilizations and the different ways they consume energy and resources in order to grow.

From this, scientists may be able to refine their predictions of what awaits us in this century and the next. It is during this time that crucial changes will be taking place, which include the aforementioned population growth, and the steady rise in temperatures. For instance, based on two scenarios that measured CO2 increases by the year 2100, NASA indicated that global temperatures could rise by either 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) or  4.4 °C (8 °F).

In the former scenario, where CO2 levels reached 550 ppm by 2100, the changes would be sustainable. But in the latter scenario, where CO2 levels reached 800 ppm, the changes would cause widespread disruption to systems that billions of humans depends upon for their livelihood and survival. Worse than that, life would become untenable in certain areas of the world, leading to massive displacement and humanitarian crises.

In addition to offering a possible resolution for the Fermi Paradox, this study offers some helpful advice for human beings. By thinking of civilizations and planets as a whole – be they Earth or exoplanets – researchers will be able to better predict what changes will be necessary for human civilization to survive. As Frank warned, it is absolutely essential that humanity mobilize now to ensure that the worst-case scenario does not occur here on Earth:

“If you change the earth’s climate enough, you might not be able to change it back. Even if you backed off and started to use solar or other less impactful resources, it could be too late, because the planet has already been changing. These models show we can’t just think about a population evolving on its own. We have to think about our planets and civilizations co-evolving.”

And be sure to enjoy this video that addresses Prof. Frank and his team’s research, courtesy of the University of Rochester:

Further Reading: University of Rochester, Astrobiology