Environmental crises at the Permian–Triassic mass extinction

The link between the Permian–Triassic mass extinction (252 million years ago) and the emplacement of the Siberian Traps Large Igneous Province (STLIP) was first proposed in the 1990s. However, the complex cascade of volcanically driven environmental and biological events that led to the largest known extinction remains challenging to reconstruct. In this Review, we critically evaluate the geological evidence and discuss the current hypotheses surrounding the kill mechanisms of the Permian–Triassic mass extinction. The initial extrusive and pyroclastic phase of STLIP volcanism was coeval with a widespread crisis of terrestrial biota and increased stress on marine animal species at high northern latitudes. The terrestrial ecological disturbance probably started 60–370 thousand years before that in the ocean, indicating different response times of terrestrial and marine ecosystems to the Siberian Traps eruptions, and was related to increased seasonality, ozone depletion and acid rain, the effects of which could have lasted more than 1 million years. The mainly intrusive STLIP phase that followed is linked with the final collapse of terrestrial ecosystems and the rapid (around 60 thousand years) extinction of 81–94% of marine species, potentially related to a combination of global warming, anoxia and ocean acidification. Nevertheless, the ultimate reasons for the exceptional severity of the Permian–Triassic mass extinction remain debated. Improved geochronology (especially of terrestrial records and STLIP products), tighter ecological constraints and higher-resolution Earth system modelling are needed to resolve the causal relations between volcanism, environmental perturbations and the patterns of ecosystem collapse.

Key points

  • The Permian–Triassic mass extinction (252 million years ago) substantially reduced global biodiversity, with the extinction of 81–94% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate families.
  • Sedimentary, palaeontological and geochemical records of the mass extinction indicate that a cascade of environmental changes caused the extinction.
  • The environmental changes can be linked (and attributed to) the effects of volcanic emissions (for example, CO2, SO2, halogens and metals) during the eruption of the Siberian Traps Large Igneous Province.
  • The inferred volcanically driven environmental perturbations include: global warming, oceanic anoxia, oceanic acidification, ozone reduction, acid rain and metal poisoning.
  • The crisis on land probably started about 60–370 thousand years before that in the ocean, indicating the different response times of terrestrial and marine ecosystems to volcanism, but the reasons for the earlier terrestrial crisis remain poorly understood.

Dal Corso J., Song H., Callegaro S., Chu D., Sun Y., Hilton J., Grasby S. E., Joachimski M. M. & Wignall P. B., in press. Environmental crises at the Permian–Triassic mass extinction. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment. Article (subscription required).


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