Cold Hard Facts About the Ice Age – WIF Current Events

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 Stone Cold Facts


the Ice Age

Even though it’s hard to see it, our planet is in a continuous state of change. Continents constantly shift and clash with each other. Volcanoes erupt, glaciers expand and recede, and life has to keep up with all of it. Throughout its existence, Earth has at various times been covered by miles-high polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers, in periods that lasted for millions of years. Generally characterized by a long-term cold climate and ice as far as the eye can see, these Ice Ages will be the topic of discussion in today’s list.

10. What is an Ice Age?


Believe it or not, defining an Ice Age is not as straightforward as some may think. Sure, we can characterize it as a period in which global temperatures were much lower than they are today, and where both hemispheres are covered in huge sheets of ice that extend for thousands of miles towards the Equator. The problem with this definition, however, is that it analyzes any given Ice Age from today’s perspective, and doesn’t actually take the entire planetary history into account. Who’s to say, then, that we’re not actually living in a cooler period than the overall average? In which case, we would actually be in an Ice Age right now. Well, some scientists, who’ve dedicated their lives to the study of these sorts of phenomena,can say. And yes, we’re actually living in an Ice Age, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

A better description of an ice age would be that it’s a long stretch of time in which both the atmosphere and the planet’s surface have a low temperature, resulting in the presence of polar ice sheets and mountainous glaciers. These can last for several million years, during which time there are also periods of glaciation, characterized by ice sheet and glacier expansion over the face of the planet, and interglacial periods, where we would have an interval of several thousand years of warmer temperatures and receding ice. So, in other words, what we know as “the last Ice Age” is, in fact, one such glaciation stage, part of the larger Pleistocene Ice Age, and we’re currently in an interglacial period known as the Holocene, which began some 11,700 years ago.

9. What causes an Ice Age?


At first glance, an Ice Age would seem to be like some sort of global warming in reverse. But while this is true to a certain extent, there are several other factors that can initiate and contribute to one. It’s important to note that the study of Ice Ages is not that old, nor is our understanding complete. Nevertheless, there is some scientific consensus on several factors that do contribute to the onset of an Ice Age. One obvious element is the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There is consistent evidence that the concentration of these gases in the air rises and falls with the retreat and advance of ice sheets. But some argue that these gases don’t necessarily kick start every Ice Age, and only influence their severity.

Another key factor that plays a part here are tectonic plates. Geological records point to a correlation between the position of the continents and the onset of an Ice Age. This means that, in certain positions, continents can obstruct the so-called Oceanic Conveyor Belt, a global-scale system of currents that bring cold water from the poles down to the Equator and vice versa. Continents can also sit right on top of a pole, as Antarctica does today, or can make a polar body of water become completely or semi-landlocked, similar to the Arctic Ocean. Both of these favor ice formation. Continents can also bulk up around the Equator, blocking the oceanic current – leading to an Ice Age. This happened during the Cryogenian period when the supercontinent Rodinia covered most of the Equator. Some specialists go even as far as saying that the Himalayas played a major role in the the current Ice Age. They say that after these mountains began forming some 70 million years ago, they increased the amount of global rainfall, which in turn led to a steady decrease of CO2 from the air.

Lastly, we have the Earth’s orbits. These also partially account for the glacial and interglacial periods within any given Ice Age. Known as the Milankovitch Cycles, the Earth experiences a series of periodic changes while circumnavigating the Sun. The first of these cycles is Earth’s eccentricity, which is characterized by the shape of our planet’s orbit around the Sun. Every 100,000 years or so, Earth’s orbit becomes more or less elliptical, meaning that it will receive more or less of the Sun’s rays. The second of these cycles is the axial tilt of the planet, which changes by several degrees every 41,000 years, on average. This tilt accounts for the Earth’s seasons and the difference in solar radiation between the poles and the equator. Thirdly, we have Earth’s precession, which translates to a wobble as Earth spins on its axis. This happens roughly every 23,000 years, and will cause winter in the Northern Hemisphere to happen when Earth is farthest away from the Sun, and summer when it’s closest. When this happens, the difference in severity between seasons will be greater than it is today. Besides these major factors, we also have the occasional lack of solar spots, large meteor impacts, huge volcanic eruptions, or nuclear wars, among other things, that can potentially lead to an Ice Age.

8. Why do they last so long?


We know that Ice Ages usually last for millions of years at a time. The reasons behind this can be explained through a phenomenon known as albedo. This is the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface when it comes to the Sun’s shortwave radiation. In other words, the more our planet is covered in white ice and snow, the more of the Sun’s radiation is reflected back into space, and the colder it gets. This leads to more ice and more reflectivity – in a positive feedback cycle that lasts for millions of years. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important for Greenland’s ice to remain where it is. Because if it doesn’t, the island’s reflectivity will decrease, adding to the overall global temperature increase.

Nevertheless, Ice Ages do eventually come to an end, and so do their glacial periods. As the air becomes colder, it can no longer hold as much moisture as it did before, leading, in turn, to less snowfall and the eventual impossibility for the ice to expand or even replenish itself. This starts a negative feedback cycle that marks the beginning of an interglacial period. By this logic, a theory was proposed back in 1956 which hypothesized that an ice-free Arctic Ocean would actually cause more snowfall at higher latitudes, above and below the Arctic Circle. This snow may eventually be in such great quantities that it will not melt during the summer months, increasing Earth’s albedo and reducing the overall temperature. In time, this will allow ice to form at lower altitudes and mid-latitudes – kick starting a glaciation event in the process.

7. But how do we really know Ice Ages even exist?


The reason people began thinking about Ice Ages in the first place was because of some large boulders located seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and with no explanation as to how they got there. The study of glaciation started during the mid-18th century, when Swiss engineer and geographer Pierre Martel began documenting the erratic dispersal of rock formations inside an Alpine valley, and downhill from a glacier. The locals told to him that those huge boulders were pushed there by the glacier that once extended much farther down the mountain. Over the decades, many other similar features were documented around the world, forming the basis for the theory of Ice Ages. Since then, other forms of evidence have been taken into account. The geological features, among which are the previously mentioned rock formations, also contain moraines, carved valleys such as fjords, glacial lakes, and various other forms of land scarring. The problem with these, however, is that they’re extremely hard to date, and successive glaciations can distort, or even completely erase the previous geological formations.

6. The Big Ice Ages


At the moment, scientists are confident that there were five major Ice Ages throughout Earth’s long history. The first of them, known as the Huronian glaciation, happened roughly 2.4 billion years ago and lasted for about 300 million years, and is considered the longest. The Cryogenian Ice Age happened around 720 million years ago, and lasted until 630 million years ago. This one is considered to be the most severe. The third massive glaciation took place about 450 million years ago and lasted some 30 million years. It’s known as the Andean-Saharan Ice Age, and caused the second largest mass extinction in Earth’s history, after the so-called Great Dying. Lasting for 100 million years, the Karoo Ice Age happened between 360 and 260 million years ago, and was caused by the appearance of land plants, whose remains we now use as fossil fuels.

Lastly, we have the Pleistocene Ice Age, also known as the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation. It began roughly 2.58 million years ago and has since gone through several glacial and interglacial periods, roughly 40,000 to 100,000 years apart. Over the past 250,000 years, however, the climate changed more frequently and abruptly, with the previous interglacial period being interrupted by numerous cold spells that lasted for several centuries at a time. The current interglacial that began roughly 11,000 years ago is atypical because of the relatively stable climate it has had up until this point. It’s somewhat safe to say that humans may have not been able to discover agriculture and develop its current level of civilization if it wasn’t for this unusual period of temperature stability.

5. Witchcraft

“Wait, what?” We know that’s what you’re thinking when you see that header in this list. But let us explain…

For a period of several centuries, beginning sometime around 1300 and ending around 1850, the world went through a period known as the Little Ice Age. Several factors worked together to lower the overall temperature, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, allowing many alpine glaciers to expand, rivers to freeze over, and crops to fail. Several villages in Switzerland were completely destroyed by the encroaching glaciers during the mid-17th century, and in 1622, even the southern section of the Bosporus Strait, around Istanbul, had completely frozen over. Things got worse in 1645 and lasted for the following 75 years, in a period known to scientists today as the Maunder Minimum.

During that time, the Sun was going through a period with little to no sunspots. These sunspots are regions on the surface of the Sun that are much lower in temperature. They are caused by concentrations in our star’s magnetic field flux. By themselves, these spots would probably be able of lower Earth’s temperature, but they’re also surrounded by some intensely-bright regions, known as faculae. These have a significantly higher radiation output that far outweighs the reduction caused by sunspots. So, a spot-free Sun actually has a lower radiation output than usual. During the 17th century, it’s estimated that the Sun dimmed by 0.2 percent – something which partially accounted for this Little Ice Age. Over 17 volcanic eruptions took place across the world during that time, dimming the sun’s rays even further.

Economic adversity brought on by this several-century-long cold spell had an incredible psychological impact on people. Frequent crop failures and firewood shortages led many from Salem, Massachusetts to suffer from a severe case of mass hysteria. In the winter of 1692, twenty people – fourteen of which were women – were hung on accusations that they were witches and to blame for everyone’s hardships. Five other people – two children included – later died in prison for the same thing. Because of unfavorable weather, some people in places like Africa occasionally accuse each other of being witches, even to this day. In other places, however, gay people are the scapegoats for the effects of global warming.

4. Snowball Earth

Earth’s first Ice Age was also its longest. As we mentioned earlier, it lasted a whopping 300 million years. Known as the Huronian Glaciation, this incredibly long and freezing epoch happened some 2.4 billion years ago, in a time when only single-celled organisms roamed the Earth. The landscape would have looked completely different than today, even before the ice took over. A series of events, however, happened that would eventually lead to an apocalyptic event of global proportions, engulfing much of the planet in a thick sheet of ice. Life prior to the Huronian Glaciation was dominated by anaerobic organisms that didn’t require oxygen to live. Oxygen was, in fact, poisonous to them, and extremely rare in the air at the time, making up just 0.02% of the atmospheric composition. But at some point, a different form of life evolved – the Cyanobacteria.

This tiny bacterium was the first being to ever make use of photosynthesis as a means of generating its food. A byproduct of this process is oxygen. As these tiny creatures thrived in the world’s oceans, they pumped millions upon millions of tons of oxygen, raising its concentration in the atmosphere to 21%, and almost driving the entire anaerobic life into extinction. This event is known as The Great Oxygenation Event. The air was also full of methane, and in contact with oxygen it turns into CO2 and water. Methane, however, is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, meaning that this transformation led to a drop in overall temperatures – which, in turn, began the Huronian Glaciation and the first mass extinction on Earth. The occasional volcano added further CO2 into the air, resulting in periodic interglacials.

3. Baked Alaska


If its name wasn’t clear enough, the Cryogenian Ice Age was the coldest period in Earth’s long history. It’s also the subject of much scientific controversy today. One topic of debate is whether the Earth was completely covered in ice, or a band of open water still remained around the equator – a Snowball, or Slushball Earth, as some call the two scenarios. The Cryogenian lasted from roughly 720 to 635 million years ago, and can be divided into two major glaciation events known as theSturtian (720 to 680 Ma) and the Marinoan (approximately 650 to 635 Ma). It’s important to note that there were no forms of multi-cellular life at that point, and some speculate that one such Snowball or Slushball Earth scenario was an early catalyst for their evolution during the so-called Cambrian explosion.

A particularly interesting study was published back in 2009, focusing on the Marinoan glaciation in particular. According to the analysis, Earth’s atmosphere was relatively warm, while its surface was covered in a thick layer of ice. This can only be possible if the planet was entirely, or almost entirely, covered in ice. They compared the phenomenon to a Baked Alaska dessert – where the ice cream doesn’t immediately melt when it’s placed in the oven. It turns out that the atmosphere had plenty of greenhouse gases in its composition, but that didn’t stop or mediate the Ice Age as we would expect. These gasses were present in such great quantities because of increased volcanic activity due to the breakup of the Rodinia supercontinent. This long volcanism is also thought to have helped start the Ice Age.

The science team warned us, however, that something similar could happen again if the atmosphere reflected too much of the Sun’s rays back into space. One such process could be triggered by a massive volcanic eruption, nuclear war, or our future attempts at mitigating the effects of global warming by spraying the atmosphere with too many sulphate aerosols.

2. Flood Myths


When the glacial ice began to melt some 14,500 years ago, the water didn’t flow to the ocean in a uniform pattern across the globe. In some places like North America, a huge proglacial lake began to form. These lakes are a result of damming, either by a moraine or an ice wall. In 1,600 years’ time, Lake Agassizcovered an estimated area of 170,000 sq. miles – larger than any lake currently in existence. It formed over parts of North Dakota, Minnesota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. When the dam finally gave in, fresh water flooded into the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River Valley. This great influx of fresh water weakened the oceanic current by up to 30%, plunging the planet into a 1,200-year-long period of glaciation known as the Younger Dryas. This unfortunate turn of events is suspected to have killed off the Clovis culture and the North American megafauna. Records also show that this cold spell came to an abrupt end some 11,500 years ago, with temperatures in Greenland rising by 18 degrees F in a mere decade.

During the Younger Dryas, the glacial ice replenished itself, and when the planet began to warm up again, Lake Agassiz also reappeared. This time, however, it joined with an equally large lake, known as Ojibway. Shortly after their merger, a new drainage took place, but this time in the Hudson Bay. Another cold spell happened 8,200 years ago, known as the 8.2 kiloyear event. Though cold temperatures lasted for only 150 years, this incident was able to raise sea levels by 13 feet. Interestingly, historians were able to link the origins of many flood myths from around the world to this exact time period. This sudden rise in sea levels also caused the Mediterranean to punch its way through the Bosporus Strait and flood the Black Sea, which at the time was only a freshwater lake.

1. Martian Ice Age

Influenced by forces beyond our control, Ice Ages are naturally occurring events that aren’t confined to Earth alone. Like our own planet, Mars also goes through periodical changes in its orbit and axial tilt. But unlike Earth, where an Ice Age implies polar ice caps growing in size, Mars experiences a different process. Because its axial tilt is more pronounced than Earth’s, and the poles receive more sunlight, a Martian Ice Age means that polar ice caps actually recede, while glaciers at the mid-latitude expand. This process is reversed during interglacial periods.

For the past 370,000 years, Mars has been slowly coming out of its own ice age and entering an interglacial period. Scientists estimate that roughly 20,900 cubic miles of ice has been accumulating at the poles since, most of it being in the Northern Hemisphere. Computer models have also shown that Mars has the capacity of being totally enveloped in ice during a glaciation event. This research is in its early stages, however, and given the fact that we’re still a long way away from fully understanding Earth’s own Ice Ages, we can’t logically expect to know everything that’s happening on Mars. Nevertheless, this research can prove useful, given our future plans for the Red Planet. It also helps us a great deal here on Earth. “Mars serves as a simplified laboratory for testing climate models and scenarios, without oceans and biology, which we can then use to better understand Earth systems,” said planetary scientist Isaac Smith.

Cold Hard Facts About the Ice Age

– WIF Current Events

Mass Extinction Handbook – WIF Science

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Facts about the Earth’s

Greatest Mass Extinction

Their causes are somewhat varied, but we’ll be focusing on the greatest mass extinction that has ever taken place here on Earth. It happened some 252 million years ago, during the Permian period, and paved the way for the Triassic one. Also known as The Great Dying, the planet witnessed a huge cataclysmic event, so devastating that 75% of all land creatures and over 95% of all marine life went extinct. What caused it, what exactly happened and what can we learn from it, we’ll be discussing in this article down below.

10. The Permian Period


In order to properly understand what happened back then, we first need to look at the Permian period itself. It lasted for about 47 million years, from 299, up until 252 million years ago and was part of the larger, Paleozoic Era. By the beginning of this period, all current continents were pushed together and formed a single large super continent, known as Pangaea. Life in the interior of this huge continent was harsh, as it had a much cooler, drier climate than around its coast. Fern-like plants and forests, which dominated the previous Carboniferous period, began to give way to the first seed-bearing plants, the gymnosperms, which in turn evolved to present-day conifers, cycads and gingkoes.

Two types of land animals began to evolve during this time, the Synapsids and Sauropsids. The first, which seemed to be the dominant of the two, or at least at the beginning, were the ancestors of all present-day mammals. In the later part of the Permian period, these evolved into the Therapsids, with some of them exhibiting evidence of whiskers and a possible indication of fur.Sauropsids on the other hand, went on to become the reptiles, birds and dinosaurs that would follow the Permian. Insects began to diversify, with cicadas and beetles making their appearance at this time.

Marine life is a bit harder to identify as there is little exposed fossil evidence available. Nevertheless, the shallower coastal waters around Pangaea indicate that reefs were large and diverse ecosystems with numerous sponge and coral species. Bony fish began to make their presence felt, while sharks and rays continued to multiply as they’ve done for millennia. Life in all its prehistoric shapes and sizes seemed to be stable, with evolution following its normal path. But then something happened; something that would shake the entire course of evolution from its very core.

9. A Massive, Earth-shaking Eruption


Many have speculated that the trigger for all these species to simply die off was a meteorite slamming into the Earth, similar to the one that may have wiped off the dinosaurs millions of years later. According to the evidence however, this seems to not have been the case. Since fossil records don’t indicate a sudden and all round extinction (like the one you would see with an asteroid impact), paleontologists have come to the conclusion that something else was the cause. And that cause can still be seen today in modern-day Siberia.

Hidden beneath the Arctic tundra, lies one of the world’s largest expanse of lava flows, forming a bleak landscape known as the Siberian Traps. What happened back then can only be described as a huge supervolcanic eruption, the likes of which have not been seen on Earth for over 500 million years. During the Permian period, Siberia was located at the northern part of Pangaea and when the volcano erupted, it engulfed an area roughly the size of the US (almost 1.7 million sq. miles) in a one mile deep sea of molten rock. Today only about 500,000 sq. miles of it are still visible. The type of lava found here indicates that there wasn’t a big explosion (but given its size, it was huge compared to ordinary volcanoes), but rather a prolonged flow of basaltic lava which spread for millions of sq. miles, in a process which maybe lasted for 500,000 years or more.

And now, even if these immense lava flows may have killed anything in their path over a large area of land, it still doesn’t account for the greatest mass extinction in Earth’s history. What came after it however, managed to do the job.

8. First Came Acid Rain


Besides the tremendous amounts of ash and dust that came from an eruption such as this, there was also a huge quantity of sulfur dioxide; a gas that has a huge negative impact on the environment. This gas rose high up into the atmosphere where it condensed into tiny droplets. If mixed with water however, you get sulfuric acid. It is estimated that the air in the northern hemisphere of this ancient Earth had a pH level so low, it was comparable to undiluted lemon juice in its acidity. Research shows that within the first year after the eruption, the volcano was able to produce about 1.46 billion tons of sulfur dioxide, enough to completely devastate the northern half of the world. Around 4,000 billion tons of sulfur dioxide may have escaped Siberia in total.

Back in 1783, Iceland witnessed one such similar volcano and subsequent lava flows (but incomparable in size), around Mount Laki. After the eruption people reported their eyes burning, impossibility of breathing, livestock suffocating and suffering lesions and burning of their skin, with plant life getting the worst of it. The same thing happened 252 million years ago, but at a much, much larger scale. The whole food chain began to collapse as acid rain was burning plants and animals alike. These toxic gases also created some chemical reactions that destroyed the overall protective ozone layer to levels lower than those observed in the Antarctic ozone hole in the 1990’s.

7. Then Came a Volcanic Winter


After a while these acid rains began to stop, but not all sulfur dioxide managed to be washed off from the air. Some of it remained high in the atmosphere, way above rain-forming clouds, and as minute sulfuric acid droplets. These reflected sunlight away from the planet, cooling its surface. Together with the insane amounts of ash and dust which quickly encircled the globe by high stratospheric winds, the planet began to witness an abrupt drop in all-round temperatures. The same thing happened in Iceland in 1783. Here the cooling was catastrophic as it killed more people than the acid rain and volcano combined. For a period of two or three years, much of Northern Europe reported crop failures, death and unrest as a result. The infamous French Revolution started because of it.

In a virtual simulation made on the last eruption at Yellowstone, some 640,000 years ago, ash and dust completely covered the northern hemisphere in just one month’s time and dropped temperatures in 18 months by 10 degrees Celsius. This blanket brought on a quick rise in Arctic ice, reflecting even more of the sun back into space. Rain stopped falling altogether with the oceans and land retaining more CO2. This made food supplies last for only weeks in some areas. It took the planet about 20 years to come back to its pre-eruption temperature. But our eruption from 252 million years ago was 1,600 times larger than this one and lasted for over half a million years. The winter itself certainly didn’t last as long, but it most certainly sent global temperatures plummeting for decades if not centuries. With the food chain in disarray, 10% of the world’s species had perished by this point.

6. Quickly Followed by a Massive Global Warming


All the while the dust settled, our supervolcano continued on pumping lava over the landscape, as well as tons upon tons of CO2 into the air. Fossil records from the time following the eruption indicate a sudden rise of carbon in the atmosphere. Scientists calculate that CO2 levels during the eruption were 20 times higher than they are today, and more than enough to seriously affect the planet. It was a sort of global warming on steroids. In 10,000 years the volcano released 24,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere and temperatures spiked by more than 5 degrees Celsius. However much 24,000 gigatons sound, if divided by the time it took to be released, it comes down to only 2.4 gigatons per year. We currently emit slightly over 4 times that (about 10 gigatons), with even more being foreseen to be pumped in the future.

While this 5 degree increase doesn’t seem that much to us, it has some seriously devastating effects on the climate. In equatorial regions it simply stopped raining and lush forests quickly became scorched deserts. If these regions were least affected by the previous volcanic winter, the massive global warming that followed severely changed that. This is the moment in time when the last of the Permian herbivores like the Dicynodon, as well as 35% of all land life, perish. And if things looked like they couldn’t get any worse, they did. This “rapid” global warming unleashed a deadly chain reaction, but this time in the oceans.

5. Leading to the Oceans Turning to Acid from Above


All the while extinction ruled over the land above the surface, nature was brewing an even more atrocious fate for the oceans. Life here remained mostly unscathed by the previous apocalyptic events, but things were about to take a turn for the worse; much, much worse. All throughout this time, the oceans were absorbing about half of the CO2 from the air (similar to what it’s doing today). Scientists have deduced that, over the course of the previously mentioned 10,000 years during the eruption, the pH levels in the oceans dropped by 0.6 to 0.7 units. In comparison, modern ocean pH levels have fallen by 0.1 pH units since the Industrial Revolution, a 30 percent increase in acidity. Depending on the future trend of carbon dioxide emissions, this value could fall by another 0.3 to 0.4 units by the end of this century, which will bring us extremely close to what happened 252 million years ago.

And what happened was disastrous for all marine life. As CO2 combines with water, it turns into carbonic acid. In seawater, this acid can have some really negative effects on the formation of carbonate minerals; the ones that mussels, corals, sea urchins and plankton use to make their shells. As acidity grew, these marine species died off and with them the whole marine food chain system collapsed. Scorpion-like predators called Eurypterids, to various types of Trilobites as well as all shell-forming beings died off because of this event. Some other less resistant marine species were also extinguished. Matthew Clarkson, a geochemist at the University of Otago in New Zealand said that it took life another 5 million years to diversify once more.

4. And Oxygen-depleted from Below


As marine life was being killed by the growing water acidity, an equally devastating killer was rising from the depths. With temperatures surging worldwide, so did the water. This in turn led to the oxygen-depleted watersfrom the ocean floor to expand and rise to the surface. Not being allowed to sink to larger depths due to suffocation, fish and invertebrates were stuck between a “rock and a hard place”, dying en masse as a result. Evidence of thiswas found in Greenland, by paleontologist Paul Wignall from the University of Leeds, where the ancient seabed, now raised, show signs of a large amount of fool’s gold (pyrite). This element can only be created if there is no oxygen around.

Evidence of this rising, oxygen-depleted, water can be seen today. As the oceans warm up, less oxygen is carried in the water, thus leaving the ocean sequestered in layers. Already naturally low in oxygen, these deep regions keep growing, spreading horizontally and vertically. Vast portions of the eastern Pacific, almost all of the Bay of Bengal, parts near Central America, and an area of the Atlantic off West Africa as broad as the United States are such “dead zones”. Since 1965, these low-oxygen areas have expanded by more than 1.7 million square miles. Further studies have indicated that during the Permian extinction, this low oxygen in the water has halted recovery in the oceans by at least one million years.

3. With Water Turning Pink and Poisonous as a Result


Besides no oxygen, fool’s gold also needs hydrogen sulfide (H2S) to be produced. And according to the large amounts of it found all over the world, and dating from that period, it is evident that the oceans were full of the stuff. In order to get that much H2S into the water however, something drastic must have happened. As temperatures rose, ocean currents stopped and water became low in oxygen. Once this occurred, organisms which hate oxygen began to thrive. The purple sulfur bacteria is one such organism. Often found in stagnant water, these bacteria have a waste product (H2S) which is poisonous to all air-breathing life. With the rise of oxygen-depleted waters, so did the environment for this organism grew, resulting in poisoning of the entire Permian ocean.

There was so much H2S in the water, that, if seen from space, the ocean would have looked pink in areas where it now looks green, due to the large number of bacteria present. But besides its aesthetics, some scientists believe that there was so much toxic gas produced, it could no longer be contained in seawater solution. As a result, large oily bubbles of hydrogen sulfide came out of the pink-stained sea and entered the atmosphere with some truly devastating results. Besides poisoning the few remaining plants and animals at the surface, H2S also significantly added to the shrinking of the ozone layer, left behind by the sulfur dioxide from the eruption.

2. And Then Came the Final Blow


At this point in time, almost all marine life was gone. It was the closest our planet ever came to achieving an aquatic extinction such as this. Land life on the other hand was only halfway there. What caused the other 25% to die was another subsequent heat wave. This time however, it didn’t come from the volcano itself, but rather from the depths of the ocean. And CO2 wasn’t to blame this time either, but rather methane.

Methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and there is currently an estimated of 30 trillion tons of methane hydrate locked on the ocean floor. If for any reason, water temperatures rise, this methane is released, as it is ultrasensitive to heat, and flows to the surface in the form of bubbles. This in turn will heat up the planet even further, leading to even more methane escaping, in a sort of a positive feedback cycle. This is exactly what happened 252 million years ago, killing off the remainder of land animals and plants, “fortunate” enough to escape the previous cataclysms. Earth’s temperature rose by another 5 degrees Celsius as a result.

Even if it took the Siberian Traps more than 10,000 years to reach this point, we today have begun to experience this phenomenon. As of 2014, researchers have found more than 500 bubbling methane vents being activated off the US east coast alone. There are an estimated 30,000 other such hidden methane vents worldwide. While this methane doesn’t reach the surface yet, it is however dissolved into the ocean at depths of hundreds of meters and being oxidized to CO2, which leads to further acidification of the water.

1. The Aftermath


Huge catastrophes such as this one can reset the evolutionary clock, meaning that the whole course of evolution will change. As the dominant species disappear, less significant ones take their place. As Gorgonopsians died off due to the scorching heat and hunger, the smaller Cynodonts took their place. Since these creatures burrowed underground, it offered them protection from both their dying predators as well as the harsh climate outside. After the mass extinction was over, and over the course of millions upon millions of years, these Cynodonts went on to become one of the dominant species of the new world. Without them we, as well as all other mammals, wouldn’t be here today.

Thoroughly understanding what happened during the end of the Permian, can help us tremendously in dealing with our current Anthropogenic Extinction. As we have observed up to this point, we are presently experiencing many of the effects felt millions of years ago, but which take place at a much faster pace than they did back then. For the first time in Earth’s history, the dominant species on the planet is upsetting the delicate balance of its ecosystem. Our massive production of CO2 has a catastrophic impact on Earth’s systems and we are able to shorten the time from tens of thousands of years, to mere centuries… some of which have already passed.

Many will say that this is just a way for the planet to “reboot” itself in terms of life. It happened before so it can happen again, right? Well, not necessarily. While it is true that we are the result of this Permian extinction, as well as the others that followed, this doesn’t automatically mean that life will happen again if Earth goes through another massive die-off. Venus is one such example. Even if it never had life, at one point in its evolution, these two planets were quite similar. But since Venus is closer to the Sun, it was a bit warmer. Because of this, our sister planet went through a process known as a runaway global warming, which made it into the hellish place it is today. Its closer proximity to the Sun was just the catalyst needed to ignite this global warming which, after 4 billion years, is still going on. Are we really that proud as to put all life we currently know exists into such a dangerous and risky predicament?

Mass Extinction Handbook

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– WIF Science