Doubling Of CO2 Levels In End-Triassic Extinction Killed Off Three Quarters Of Land And Sea Species

“There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record.” That’s from a 2010 special issue on climate change and biodiversity from the UK’s Royal Society.

In 2011, a Nature Geoscience study found humans are spewing carbon into the atmosphere 10 times faster now than 56 million years ago, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a time of 10°F warming and mass extinction.

An even more ancient extinction is the subject of a new study in Science (subs. req’d), with the tongue-twister title, “Zircon U-Pb Geochronology Links the End-Triassic Extinction with the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province.”

As the MIT News release puts it:

Some 200 million years ago, an increase in atmospheric CO2 caused acidification of the oceans and global warming that killed off 76 percent of marine and terrestrial species on Earth.

Whereas human activity is the source of the rapid surge in CO2 emissions today, the source of the surge 200 million years ago is now widely thought to be volcanoes:

… most scientists agree on a likely scenario: Over a relatively short period of time, massive volcanic eruptions from a large region known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) spewed forth huge amounts of lava and gas, including carbon dioxide, sulfur and methane. This sudden release of gases into the atmosphere may have created intense global warming and acidification of the oceans that ultimately killed off thousands of plant and animal species.

Now researchers at MIT, Columbia University and elsewhere have determined that these eruptions occurred precisely when the extinction began, providing strong evidence that volcanic activity did indeed trigger the end-Triassic extinction.

Today, of course, notwithstanding the claims of some disinformers, “Humans emit 100 times more CO2 than volcanoes,” as Skeptical Science explains in one of their classic myth-debunking posts.

So what is the connection between what happened in the End-Triassic Extinction and our current mass extinction? As ClimateWire (subs. req’d) explains:

“In some ways, this event is analogous to the present day,” said study lead author Terrence Blackburn, of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Morgan Schaller, a research associate in earth systems history at Brown University, has previously published work in Science showing that these massive eruptions led to a doubling of carbon dioxide levels from 2,000 parts per million to 4,400 ppm.

Although researchers are not sure how quickly this doubling occurred, it could have been within a period as short as 1,000 years.

This leads them to draw analogies between today’s rapid CO2 increase and the past. Even though the base-line levels of CO2 were much higher 200 million years ago, a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations leads to a 3 degree Celsius increase whether it’s from 2,000 to 4,000 ppm or from 280 to 560 ppm, Schaller said….

Paul Olsen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a co-author on the paper released yesterday, said the extinction, however it happened, occurred in 20,000 years or less — but like the speed of the carbon dioxide doubling, it could have been a lot less.

In any case, what humans are doing to the biosphere today is mostly without precedent in the geologic record and poised to be far worse than most previous extinctions, according to recent research:

  • Study finds “mass biodiversity collapse” at 900 ppm, and possibly a “threshold response … to relatively minor increases in CO2 concentration and/or global temperature.”
  • Nature Climate Change: “The proportion of actual biodiversity loss should quite clearly be revised upwards: by 2080, more than 80% of genetic diversity within species may disappear in certain groups of organisms“
  • Scientist: “When CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans”
  • A 2009 study in Nature Geoscience warned that global warming may create expanding “dead zones” in the ocean that would be devoid of fish and seafood and “remain for thousands of years.”
  • Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century.”

There will always be zoos … won’t there?

57 Responses to Doubling Of CO2 Levels In End-Triassic Extinction Killed Off Three Quarters Of Land And Sea Species

  1. The whole topic is chilling, but for me, when you close with “there will always be zoos” cuts particularly close. Even though dire predictions are made for the future of biodiversity under expected climate change, I feel we are almost certainly underestimating the problem. As the changing climate increasingly devastates our agriculture, it seems fairly certain that we will eat our zoos, and our neighbours pets, and pretty much everything that walks or swims or crawls or flies that we can get our hands on as we become increasingly desperate for anything to eat.

  2. Mark E says:

    Language Intelligence Rules!

    In response to “Humans are too puny to effect nature”…..

    ….. I just heard a researcher talk about how “cyanobacteria tailpipe emissions” created the first oxygen atmosphere

  3. Daniel Coffey says:

    Joe: Please use the term carbon dioxide instead of carbon. There is no need to introduce another term into the conversation or re-brand what is already a confusing area of discussion. Carbon might easily be confused for soot or black particulate material, something which will fall out of the the atmosphere rapidly compared with CO2.

  4. fj says:

    Loss of the rich diversity of life is truly tragic and very dangerous.

    Cousteau was in tears returning to devastated marines after being away for several decades.

    EO Wilson in a similar state of desperation wrote “The Future of Life”.


    So many of humanity’s demons to overcome.

    So little time.

  5. Mark E says:

    Where’s that leave CH4?

  6. Brian R Smith says:

    I hope we’ll see a repost here of yesterday’s NYT op-ed by Edward Hoagland,

    Pity Earth’s Creatures

    It is stunningly, instructively excellent writing to the heart of our folly. Commenter Polly Armstrong says it better than I could:

    Edward Hoagland has eloquently captured the terrifying unconsciousness of humans in this rapidly declining natural world we are destroying. My heart hurt as I read his exquisitely vivid words of clarity, deep compassion, rare intelligence and insight into what so many of us ignore, pretend is not real. We need more speakers, writers, criers in the technological wilderness like this author to scream from the rooftops in every neighborhood, pound the halls of Congress and articulate harsh, sobering Truth to all of us before it is too late. Ironically, his words gave me hope to find at least a few conscious human beings still out there trying to stop this madness.

  7. Joe Romm says:

    I generally use CO2 but the scientific community has long favored carbon.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    The Blackburn et al. abstract says, “demonstrates synchroneity between the earliest volcanism and extinction.”

    Earlier work using the U/Pb geochronology technique correlated the volcanism at the end-Triassic extinction with global cooling, glaciation and sea-level fluctuation.

    That could suggest that a preponderance of sulfur dioxide cooling, greater than the CO2 warming effect, occurred.

    This is a truly astonishing to imagine, as Schaller et al found the huge up-shoot in CO2, as Joe cited.
    Here’s a direct link to the Schaller abstract:

    What I’d feel safe to take away from the geologic research is that the most recent previous mass extinction involved severe temperature flux (and by inference climate pattern flux) and ocean acidification.

    That much we have in common with the previous extinction, but other factors can differ significantly, such as direction of temperature flux, rate of flux, and possibly the chemical composition of ocean acidification.

  9. BlackDragon says:

    Thanks, Brian. That is an absolutely brilliant essay.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    Basically, ours is faster and worse, yet different.

  11. Brian R Smith says:

    What gives the Earth life and beauty as we find it, 3.18 billion years down the road from much simpler beginnings, is its deep and balanced complexity. When we identify biodiversity loss as non-recoverable, we’re describing more than the breaking down of ecological relationships among diverse components of physical & biological systems, like butterflies and ocean currents and human brains; we’re talking about loosing an evolved total, planetary complexity – forever – that is unique in the universe and that can never be restored.

    If there is a human crime against the creativity of whatever Creator anyone fancies, surely it is the ignorant and now intentional destruction of the complexity that resulted in a self-organizing planet and its fledgling attempt, through us, at consciousness. What happens to our wonderful gift of self awareness when the beauty and complexity it has evolved from becomes a smoking, rotting, blood-soaked corpse at our own hands?

    However hopelessly far behind we think we are in the business of waking up the public – and whether we think it’s better to tell them about local climate impacts rather than the evolution of complexity – we are at the tipping point where our continued non-response to right wing propaganda in all its forms will bury, IMHO, the best chance we have to cause a meaningful shift in the public and policy. This is not an online-only fight and civil disobedience will not saturate deep enough, soon enough. It’s tipping point time for big green and other actors to take on serious strategic media planning to counter the growing success of the dark side. One percent of the $17.8 B total income of US enviro orgs for 2012 is $179M. Enough of a war chest. This would fund an address to the nation by climate scientists, crank up the networking efficiency of the climate community, buy support for climate progressive candidates in critical House districts, buy TV ad space.. and attract further funding and collaboration from business & donors. It’s slipping away. Too complex, maybe.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What most impresses me is how those with the power, the power that caused this omnicide and the power to avert it, so transparently do not give a stuff. They are, in truth, the servants of Death, faithful, loyal, hard-working, doing His Business every second of every day, with exemplary single-mindedness. Almost more amazing is that the human beings simply let them get away with it.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Being called methane, I suppose.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The destruction of the natural world has tormented me since I was a child. It was the root of my hatred of the global system, and the genesis of my belief that radical evil had triumphed in the human world into which I had been flung. Needless to say, that belief has grown, inexorably, from horrid insinuation to cold, hard, conviction.

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    Yes, there will still be zoos, but we will be the inmates, not the keepers. A more intelligent species would take our place, and they will be sure to keep us locked in our cages.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The complexity will return, in a few million years. ‘Right’ is just an old euphemism for evil, now more plain than ever. And the crime of destroying the beauty of Creation, God’s or otherwise, is the sin for which there is no forgiveness.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I hope who or whatever puts us in a zoo will treat us kindly and feed us regularly. Some of us have tried not to be criminals, ME

  18. Sasparilla says:

    It does bring to mind the question of what a technologically advanced alien species that exists to protect and encourage life on planets would do were it to come here and look at us at this point.

    I doubt we’d get cages – we’d probably be written off.

  19. Brian R Smith says:

    Exactly so. There will be no forgiving the greatest crime imaginable.

  20. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent article Joe. We’re lining up the balls to shoot for something massive as an extinction event, (give ourselves business as usual for the future and we’ll be at something gruesome) – the question is how bad will we make it?

    I would think, in retrospect, we’ll have wanted to save organisms needed to re-establish food chains for most major existing environments in the future – and most would never be found in a Zoo.

  21. Mark E says:

    The zoos in 7213 CE will have several exhibits of different species of skeptics, deniers, and industry shills.

  22. Joyannah says:

    Write your congressfolk in support of the Sanders/Boxer Climate Protection Act S332. We must move forward quickly with a national solution. No way to move a whole nation without legislation. Carbon Fee & Dividend is the best way forward.

  23. Mike Roddy says:

    Good one, Brian, and thanks for your passion.

    The Green groups are very weak on climate, which is why 350 had to fill the void. Most green NGO’s are saturated with corporate money, so they often enable fracking (asking for “better regulation”), stop solar projects via lawsuits, refuse to press for a carbon tax, ignore deforestation in North America, etc. Like Congress, they have been bought.

    I agree that public outrage probably won’t succeed either. In my opinion public education about climate through alternate media is the best course, to include product boycotts of fossil media outlets’ advertisers. It would take a concerted campaign, and Big Greens are too fat and too cowardly. Wealthy and well meaning donors don’t know yet that they need to look outside the Green groups.

  24. Vic says:

    I sometimes wonder what the greenhouse gas emissions of a 100 year mass extinction might look like. Trillions of organisms dying, rotting and gasifying back to CO2 and methane. In a balanced ecosystem, when one organism dies it is essentially replaced by another organism, but would such a balance exist during a mass extinction event? Could it be that we’re triggering another significant feedback loop?

    Looking on the bright side, human ingeniuity could engineer the mass deployment of pyrolysis furnaces in order to convert all the corpses back to biochar which could then be used to supplement our coal fired power plants making them more sustainable. We could call it Soylent Black.
    (Sorry – the sixth mass extinction puts me in a bad place.)

  25. Ed Leaver says:

    In any case, what humans are doing to the biosphere today is mostly without precedent in the geologic record…

    T,FTFY. Otherwise citation needed.

    I’m being facetious. Amongst other qualities, what I appreciate most of Joe’s writing is his copious references to primary and secondary sources. But in my own web researches I’ve yet to find any precedent to our present folly.

    “Things have never been more like the way they are today.” — D.D. Eisenhower

  26. Paul Klinkman says:

    There’s no motion to have zoos for earth’s 30 million species. There are probably on the order of 1000 species being bred in zoos. So, that’s all we would have left except for the really adaptive species: cockroaches, rats and humans especially.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There are creatures who clearly belong in more than one of those categories.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Big Green began selling out in Australia years ago, when they started blathering on about ‘working with business’, which is akin to tackling child abuse by ‘working with paederasts’. The sell out continues to today because capitalism is the lowest common denominator process par excrescence. Sell out, and you get ‘consultancies’ or some other sinecure, either when you leave the upper echelons of Big Green groups, or even while still working there. Show a reluctance to ‘co-operate’ and your career path closes off, dramatically.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I imagine that a really humane such species would treat the robopaths of the Right for their spiritual diseases. Some might prove intractable to even the most advanced remedies, and would need to be removed to a far distant planet, where they could be set free, with minimal technology, to prey on one another.

  30. Merrelyn Emery says:

    And surely we could do something with all those extra, fat juicy maggots. We could call that Soylent White, ME

  31. Brian R Smith says:

    I’m hoping informed outrage *will* rise from the muck; it’s key to the politics..but that would take a coordinated, structured effort and that is, as you say,not on the Big Green to-do list. We’re not only missing the moment for hard truth-telling on climate and climate solutions; we’re missing the moment for framing the post-carbon argument in terms of urgently needed solutions. For grabbing these moments some unity would be handy.

  32. fj says:

    Excellent. How macabre.

    Devil’s excrement does fit the continuing violation.

    Double, double toil and trouble;     Fire burn, and caldron bubble.       

  33. David Goldstein says:

    Mauna Loa CO2 as of March 17th- 397.46 (highest ever recorded, of course). We are going to be darn close to 400 for May. Shall we start a pool?

  34. Mimikatz says:

    Agreed. They would orbit for awhile, studying us, but eventually would be appalled and repelled by our violence and aggressiveness. They would realize there was no possibility of sending down envoys because too many humans have the impulse to kill what is different. They would realize there would be organized opposition to any attempts to help us. In the end they would just leave us to our fate.

  35. Mark E says:

    The pool should be for the date we pass a carbon tax.

    With $300 million in the pool people will be lining up to place their bets, and then calling Wash to demand passage.

  36. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “(Sorry – the sixth mass extinction puts me in a bad place.)”
    Nice double entendre’. We may all be headed for a “bad place”. The planet will survive, and could care less who (or what) becomes the dominant species. The measure is nor exactly “survival of the fittest” – it’s actually survival of those adaptive enough to deal with environmental change. The last of the homonids (we two-legged creatures without tails) are pretty adaptive. Our species is likely to survive, thouhgh not in our present numbers. We came through the last ice age despite our numbers decreasibng to less than 100,000, and the number of breeding pairs decreasing to less than 10,000. If, however we fail the upcomming test, I’d reckon several bacteria and viruses will do quite well in our stead.

  37. Ed Hummel says:

    Hey Mike, that reminds me of the original “Planet of the Apes” which I just saw for the 7th time last week. The Orangutan, Doctor Zaius, had humans pegged perfectly. We all belong in cages and under strict control. That’s the only way the present human species can co-exist with the rest of creation. Our intelligence has evolved in a fatally flawed package which is perpetrating our current mass extinction and the whole planet will probably be better off once it’s run its course and we’ve disappeared from the scene. Any other scenario now appears to be the height of hubris and species arrogance if any of us thinks that any other course is possible. At least that’s the way I feel now. Mulga, I hear you!!

  38. Joan Savage says:

    Before I became a scientist, I posited the same assumption that we’d be succeeded by something more intelligent.

    I got a quick riposte from a biology teacher who pointed out that natural selection affects every aspect of evolution. In his example, if the biggest selection pressure was from a nuclear war, it would be organisms like cockroaches that have a high tolerance for radioactivity that would survive.

    Organisms that have high heat tolerance, can go for long times between feedings, and can go dormant during droughts could beat out “intelligence.”

  39. BobbyL says:

    I agree has filled a void but so far it hasn’t proven that it can get results. It seems to have achieved only a sort of hollow victory when Obama postponed Keystone, but even in that case the reason had nothing to do with climate change but rather possible water pollution in Nebraska. I would give credit to the activists in Nebraska on that one, not which claimed credit anyway. The strength of is that it is focused solely on climate change. In contrast, the Sierra Club, which has far more resources, is engaged in an almost endless list of environmental issues as are the other major green organizations. To win the climate battle I think we may need all the environmental organizations and then some.

  40. Sasparilla says:

    David is there a way to look at the daily readings for Mauna Loa CO2 levels that everyone can access?

    CO2 Now doesn’t get down to that level of granularity.

  41. rollin says:

    What makes our period unique compared to other global warming events of the past is the rate of GW gas concentration increase and the albedo change. An already warm world does not have ice loss, our current state combines the feedback effect of rapidly decreasing snow and ice cover, thus decreasing albedo and increasing the rate of temperature rise. We are essentially hitting the environment with a global hammer.

  42. Brian R Smith says:

    …or as Eddy Adcock, banjoist, put it at a Country Gentlemen concert I once attended:

    “I feel more like I do right now than I did when I came in.”

    (Joe, is this a form of speech with a name?) Eisenhower or bluegrass jokes, it’s comforting that we can still get nuggets of obfuscation from people we trust.

  43. David Goldstein says:

    there you go, Sasparilla (copy and paste above url)- it is on the NOAA cite.

  44. David Goldstein says:

    hey, even better!- just click on it (I’m a ‘cyber dope’ when it comes to these things).

  45. EDpeak says:

    Mulga, as often, agree to a large extent but think the critique needs tweaking: we would have a huge, huge problem indeed if what we faced were monsterous people in power doing monsterous things. It would then be a very very hard job to replace (such very very powerful) people. But what we face is much worse and harder to change: a System that very very strongly pushed/aligns/directs NONmonsterous people to behave this way, when in power.

    As a citizen activist I am loathe to say anything that would make it easier for them to excuse their actions, by saying they “have no choice” – I won’t say that – but in truth, they have *little* freedom to act, these who are in power. CEO can do anything? Not at all – they get replaced the second they are bad for (short term) profits/ So even putting aside that people (universally) can fool themselves into believing that what they are doing is good, even if their eyes are open, they are not off the hook, not excused, but they also can not to that much (other than resign from CEO and donate a few millions to activist causes, THAT would be good, and the self-delusion that “what I’m doing is right” is probably what prevents that action) but while in power as President, CEO, etc, they do NOT have the power to “easily” act to change things. That is the harsh reality. Thus our work as citizens is that much harder – protest, yes, but do much more: work to change the system.

    We do not have illogical pathological humans at the head of a sane system; we have an insane, maximize-(short-term!)profits-at-all costs system that (almost) forces even sane people at the top, to act in insane omnicidal ways. Need to change the ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ of this system! (see link for one path).

  46. EDpeak says:

    In fact this is something I had long wanted Noam Chomsky to acknowledge. Well, turns out, he does. I’ll have to look up the quote but in one youtube video he says of CEOs who want a liveable planet for their kids but act in ways to make that impossible are “almost forced into [their actions]” he does use the word “almost” but still….In another interview, he was asked what he’d do if he was Obama regarding some issues where Obama’s policies are horrible. He started with, though he’d of course refuse to be President if offered, with something like “If I were [in his shoes] I’d probably do something pretty similar…” but immediately added “but that’s the wrong question” and far google search not successful to find that interview will keep searching, but basic point is hopefully illustrated..

  47. An example is the recent lawsuit against a major IT company to try to make them give more dividends right away to shareholders instead of investing in development.

  48. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Very well said, ME

  49. Calamity Jean says:

    “Carbon gasses” maybe?

  50. Spike says:

    The comment about the beauty of our Earth is well made – the reference to one insect type, the butterfly, reminded me of the deep sadness I felt reading this this morning:

  51. Solar Jim says:

    American Heritage Dictionary 1971, pg. 202,
    carbonic acid gas. Carbon dioxide.

    Both “carbon” and “carbon dioxide” seem poor use of language. They mean little to most citizens because they do not convey harm, as the term “acid” does. Mother Earth has a fever and dose determines toxicity. All of the fossil carbon ignited through human history is the majority of the dose: fossil carbonic acid gas, for our own global gas chamber. It’s “economical,” as long as global annual public subsidies are equal to annual “development” costs.

    Can you say pathological.

  52. Solar Jim says:

    Under nation-state power politics there are no limits to arrogance, militarism, greed and ignorance (because these are based on emotions and status). Poor Einstein who said matter has equivalence to energy, when nothing could be further from the truth. The entire fossil/fissile fuel paradigm is based on economic fraud.

  53. Solar Jim says:

    They would not even need to leave a human cookbook: To Serve Mankind. We’ve already got that covered. (RE: old Twilight Zone TV episode)

  54. Solar Jim says:

    You won’t have any “intelligent” organisms if the planet’s oxygen producers are dead.

  55. Solar Jim says:

    . . . or initiated some equivalence of multiple incoming thermonuclear weapons. We have nuked the climate. Yet the pathology still continues and grows.

  56. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Unless they are machines.