Think of it as the biggest whodunnit in history: trillions or more living things die due to an unknown culprit. Until now, maybe.
In a new article in Scientific Reports, researchers believe that they have discovered the cause of the Great Permian Extinction: a massive volcanic eruption in what is now Siberia, which lasted an astounding million years and completely changed the climate of the planet.
The Great Permian Extinction—also called the Great Dying—took place about 252 million years ago, and was the biggest mass extinction event in the planet’s history. 96 percent of all life is believed to have gone extinct, and the planet was so devastated that it took about 10 million years for life to recover to previous levels. It ended the Permian period and brought on the Triassic, during which the earliest dinosaurs appeared.
The exact cause of this event has remained mysterious. However, researchers have now put together various data and believe that they can confirm that the Siberian volcanic eruptions, which are known to have happened around the same time, were the cause of the mass extinction.
One of the key pieces of evidence: a sudden spike in nickel that appeared around the same time, in regions as diverse as India and the Arctic. As lead researcher Michael Rampino notes, the Siberian eruptions occurred at one of the most nickel-rich areas of the planet.
“The Siberian volcanic eruptions and related massive intrusions of nickel-rich magmas into the Earth’s crust apparently emitted nickel-rich volatiles into the atmosphere, where they were distributed globally,” he explained.
“At the same time, explosive interactions of the magma with older coal deposits could have released large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases, which would explain the intense global warming recorded in the oceans and on land at the time of the mass extinctions. The warm oceans also became sluggish and depleted in dissolved oxygen, contributing to the extinction of many forms of life in the sea.”
According to this theory, these eruptions changed the planet so much that most life died out, altering the entire course of the planet’s history.
“We hope to learn more about how these events trigger massive extinctions that affect both land and marine animals,” said co-author Sedelia Rodriguez. “Additionally, we hope this research will contribute to determining whether an event of this magnitude is possible in the future.”