Burning coal may have caused Earth’s worst mass extinction


New geological research from Utah suggests the end-Permian extinction was mainly caused by burning coal, ignited by magma

Fossil of a Galesaurus, a cynodont that lived during the Permian period.
 Fossil of a Galesaurus, a cynodont that lived during the Permian period. Photograph: Iziko Museum of Natural History

Earth has so far gone through five mass extinction events – scientists are worried we’re on course to trigger a sixth – and the deadliest one happened 252 million years ago at the end of the Permian geologic period. In this event, coined “the Great Dying,” over 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species went extinct. It took about 10 million years for life on Earth to recover from this catastrophic event.

Scientists have proposed a number of possible culprits responsible for this mass extinction, including an asteroid impact, mercury poisoning, a collapse of the ozone layer, and acid rain. Heavy volcanic activity in Siberia was suspected to play a key role in the end-Permian event.

Recently, geologist Dr Benjamin Burger identified a rock layer in Utah that he believed might have formed during the Permian and subsequent Triassic period that could shed light on the cause of the Great Dying.

Sheep Creek Valley, Utah
 Sheep Creek Valley, Utah. Photograph: Benjamin Burger

During the Permian, Earth’s continents were still combined as one Pangea, and modern day Utah was on the supercontinent’s west coast. Samples from the end-Permian have been collected from rock layers in Asia, near the volcanic eruptions, but Utah was on the other side of Pangaea. Burger’s samples could thus provide a unique perspective of what was happening on the other side of the world from the eruptions. Burger collected and analyzed samples from the rock layer, and documented the whole process in a fascinating video:

Dr Burger’s ‘Rocks of Utah’ episode documenting his investigation of the Permian-Triassic Boundary geologic samples.

Earth turned into a toxic hellscape

Burger’s samples painted a grim picture of Earth’s environment at the end of the Permian period. A sharp drop in calcium carbonate levels indicated that the oceans had become acidic. A similar decline in organic content matched up with the immense loss of life in the oceans during this period. The presence of pyrite pointed to an anoxic ocean (without oxygen), meaning the oceans were effectively one massive dead zone.

Bacteria ate the oversupply of dead bodies, producing hydrogen sulfide gas, creating a toxic atmosphere. The hydrogen sulfide oxidized in the atmosphere to form sulfur dioxide, creating acid rain, which killed much of the plant life on Earth. Elevated barium levels in the samples had likely been carried up from the ocean depths by a massive release of methane.

The culprit: burning coal

Levels of various metals in the rock samples were critical in identifying the culprit of this mass extinction event. As in end-Permian samples collected from other locations around the world, Burger didn’t find the kinds of rare metals that are associated with asteroid impacts. There simply isn’t evidence that an asteroid struck at the right time to cause the Great Dying.

However, Burger did find high levels of mercury and lead in his samples, coinciding with the end of the Permian period. Mercury has also been identified in end-Permian samples from other sites. Lead and mercury aren’t associated with volcanic ash, but they are a byproduct of burning coal. Burger also identified a shift from heavier carbon-13 to lighter carbon-12; the latter results from burning fossil fuels.

The Permian was the end of the Carboniferous period, which means “coal-bearing.” Many large coal deposits were created in the Carboniferous, including in Asia. Previous research has shown that the Permian mass extinction event didn’t coincide with the start of the Siberian volcanic eruptions and lava flows, but rather 300,000 years later. That’s when the lava began to inject as sheets of magma underground, where Burger’s data suggests it ignited coal deposits.

The coal ignition triggered the series of events that led to Earth’s worst mass extinction. Its sulfur emissions created the acid rain that killed forests. Its carbon emissions acidified the oceans and warmed the planet, killing most marine life. The dead bodies fed bacteria that produced toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, which in turn killed off more species. The warming of the oceans produced a large methane release, which accelerated global warming faster yet. As Burger put it,

Things went from bad to worse, and you can now begin to understand how life nearly died out. Global warming, acid oceans, anoxia, not to mention a toxic atmosphere. We are lucky to be alive at all!

Eerie similarities to today

Scientists are observing many of the same signs of dangerously rapid climate change today. There’s more lighter carbon-12 in the atmosphere because the increase in atmospheric carbon levels is due entirely to humans burning fossil fuels. There are an increasing number of dead zones in the oceans. Burning coal was causing acid rain, although we largely solved that problem through Clean Air Acts, and in the US, a sulfur dioxide cap and trade system implemented by a Republican administration.

We’ve had less success in tackling carbon dioxide pollution, which continues to rise. As a result, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic, and temperatures increasingly hot. Scientists today also worry about potentially large releases of methane from the ocean floor and Arctic.

These are some of the similarities between the climate change that nearly wiped out life on Earth 252 million years ago and the climate change today. Both appear to have largely been caused by burning coal. A 2011 study found that over the past 500 years, species are now going extinct at least as fast as they did during the five previous mass extinction events.

It’s enough to make you think; maybe coal isn’t so beautiful and clean after all.


Backed Into a Corner



Commentary by Jim Robertson


Despite humans’ best efforts to destroy her, it seems Nature is not going down without a fight. And regardless of what humans may believe about themselves and their place at the pinnacle, Nature is ultimately much bigger, heavier and vastly more significant in the so-called ‘scheme of things.’


Harassed by their bird-dog, a sow grizzly bears charges pheasant hunters (who, of course, shoot and kill her–leaving three cubs motherless); a ‘serial-killer’ elephant tramples 15 Indians (out of over a billion); and just yesterday a new article tells us a about a ‘hunter gored to death by a cornered deer.’


Could it all be part of a long-suffering and normally highly (even saintly) tolerant Mother Nature finally fighting back against her one fatal blunder–the fleshy, hairless, upright, arrogant apes armed with their weapons of mass extinction?


Homo sapiens may have won countless battles and the arms race hands-down, but Nature will ultimately win the day and eventually, the war, wiping the slate clean for another burst of evolutionary creativity that won’t include the conceited carnivorous primates or their puffed-up fantasies of self-importance.



Things could really start to get ugly

It came to me while reading the nonfiction book What Evolution Is by the famed evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mahr, that the only way Mother Nature is ever going to get rid of the species plaguing her perfection is with a good old-fashioned mass extinction, because, sadly, humans aren’t going anywhere without taking just about every other species with them.

Humankind have backed Nature into a corner and at this point all she can do is turn and fight, like sow grizzly bear defending her beloved offspring

Humans have gotten away with killing and eating, killing for sport and/or taking trophies of any and all of Natures’ finest treasures for so long now we’re starting to think we’re entitled to simply help ourselves to the spoils of our war on the world.

Well; if humans don’t shape up and show some respect, things could really start get ugly on this planet soon for everyone involved… and that’s not just talking weather-wise.  


“We are a plague on Earth:” David Attenborough: ‘If We Don’t Limit Our Population Growth, the Natural World Will’

  • The famed British naturalist warns that our current rate of population growth is unsustainable and will ultimately have devastating consequences for the human race.
  • He recommends several ways to combat this problem, emphasizing a need to give women political control of their bodies and investing in sex education worldwide.


David Attenborough, renowned British naturalist and TV presenter, has some pretty scathing words for humanity: “We are a plague on Earth.”

Attenborough made that statement to the Radio Times back 2013, but it’s far from the only time he’s shared his controversial views on population growth. Attenborough has made it clear that he believes that at the rate humans are growing we will soon be unable to feed or house ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but one that needs to be faced, especially for anyone who agrees with Attenborough that humans have become a plague on this planet — a relentless force of destruction tearing its way through a world shared with other creatures.

“It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde,” he said in that same interview. “Either we limit our population growth, or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

The rapid growth of our population is making it very difficult for the world to address several serious environmental challenges. What’s needed is a real discussion about the reality of overpopulation. Too many people, combined with insufficient methods of creating and distributing resources, ultimately leads to loss of life and resources.

“We can’t go on increasing at the rate human beings are increasing forever, because Earth is finite and you can’t put infinity into something that is finite,” Attenborough said in a story published by The Independent.


Despite all his efforts to bring awareness to the subject of overpopulation, Attenborough sternly warns that simply acknowledging these eventualities is not enough — we must act. He believes that controlling our population is dependent on investing in sex education globally, giving women more political control over their bodies, and implementing other voluntary means of population control in developing countries.

“The only straw of comfort or of hope, and even that is pretty fragile, is that wherever women are given political control of their bodies, where they have the vote, education, appropriate medical facilities and they can read and have rights and so on, the birth rate falls, there’s no exceptions to that,” Attenborough says.

Putting more emphasis on women’s reproductive rights and empowerment, as well as providing universal access to birth control and education, will ultimately give people an opportunity to make informed family planning choices. Our only hope of living on this planet for a long time into the future is making sure we start planning for it now.

Dinosaurs might have escaped total extinction had doomsday asteroid struck seconds earlier, later

http://www.torontosun.com/2017/05/15/dinosaurs-might-have-escaped-total-extinction-had-doomsday-asteroid-struck-seconds-earlier-later MONDAY, MAY 15, 2017 12:19 PM EDT | UPDATED: MONDAY, MAY 15, 2017 12:53 PM EDT


A new BBC Two documentary suggests dinosaurs might have escaped extinction if a doomsday asteroid had struck 30 seconds earlier or later.

Instead, it’s believed the massive, 15 km-wide rock smashed into shallow water near the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago, ejecting mass amounts of sulfur into Earth’s atmosphere.

“This is where we get to the great irony of the story,” Ben Garrod, who presents The Day The Dinosaurs Died, told the BBC.

“In the end it wasn’t the size of the asteroid, the scale of blast, or even its global reach that made dinosaurs extinct. It was where the impact happened.”

Researchers contend the ensuing blast caused an extended global winter that left dinosaurs with nothing to sustain themselves.


However, had the giant asteroid struck moments earlier or later it might have splashed into deeper waters in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

Such an open water impact could have resulted in less vaporized particles being ejected into the air, thereby allowing more sunlight to reach Earth’s surface.

Scientists believe the impact that formed Mexico’s Chicxulub Crater resulted in an explosion equal to 10 billion Hiroshima A-bombs, according to the report.

The documentary also speculates that the original impact caused immediate death for dinosaurs roaming as far away as New Jersey.

Mass Die-Off of Whales in Atlantic Is Being Investigated


Workers inspecting a dead humpback whale that washed up on Rockaway Beach in Queens this month.CreditSpencer Platt/Getty Images

Humpback whales have been dying in extraordinary numbers along the Eastern Seaboard since the beginning of last year. Marine biologists have a term for it — an “unusual mortality event” — but they have no firm idea why it is happening.

Forty-one whales have died in the past 15 months along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Maine. In a news conference on Thursday, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries said that they had not identified the underlying reason for the mass death, but that 10 of the whales are known to have been killed by collisions with ships.

The agency is starting a broad inquiry into the deaths.

These whales “have evidence of blunt force trauma, or large propeller cuts,” said Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer at the agency’s Office of Protected Resources. These collisions with ships were “acute events,” Dr. Fauquier said, and were being treated as the “proximate cause of death.”

Dr. Fauquier said that the number of whale strandings was “alarming,” and that she hoped the investigation might give a sense of what kind of threat this presents to this population of humpback whales and those around the world.

COn average, eight humpback whales are stranded each year from Maine to Virginia, and fewer than two are hit by ships, according to data from NOAA.

An unusual mortality event is a specific designation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and is defined as “a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response.”

Whale or other marine mammal die-offs are often poorly understood by scientists, and this case is no exception. Officials from NOAA Fisheries could not explain why the animals were coming into greater contact with vessels, or if there were any human-caused or climate-related disturbances that had changed their behavior.

Gregory Silber, marine resources manager in the agency’s Office of Protected Resources, said that there had not been any increase in ship traffic in the region, and that the whales might be following their prey — they mostly eat krill and small fish — to areas where there could be more shipping.

Ten whales other than those killed by ships have been examined, but officials have not yet determined the cause of death. There is no indication that they were killed by disease.

Humpback whales — which can be as long as 60 feet, weigh as much as 40 tons and can live for 50 years — are found in all of the world’s oceans. There are 14 distinct population segments — groups that follow certain migration and breeding patterns — of humpback whales, some of which are classified as endangered or threatened. The population along the Atlantic coast, which winters in the Caribbean and summers in the North Atlantic or Arctic regions, is not now considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Around the world, there are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 humpback whales, about a third of its original population. The Atlantic population is around 10,000.

Scientists have suggested that some whale deaths could be a result of marine noise, often a result of military activity, offshore drilling or exploration, which can disorient the animals and send them in the wrong direction, possibly toward beaches where they get stuck instead of into the deeper ocean. Mr. Silber, the NOAA manager, said he was not aware of a connection between ocean noise and these strandings.

A recent study has shown that dolphins, when escaping predators or the source of marine noise, might shoot up from a dive more quickly than they otherwise would, switching from slow, deliberate strokes to faster, longer ones, which can cause them to use double the energy they normally do, and exhaust them.

The last major mass casualty event for marine mammals in this part of the world took place from 2013 to 2015, when a resurgence of the morbillivirus killed thousands of bottlenose dolphins on the Eastern Seaboard.

Among humpback whales, there was an unusual mortality event in 2006, following others in 2005, which involved other large whales, and 2003, which was primarily humpback whales. In each investigation, the cause was undetermined, officials said.

NOAA officials said members of the public looking to help could report stranded or dead floating whales to numbers listed on their website.

Resurrecting extinct species might come at a terrible cost


February 27, 2017
Resurrecting extinct species might come at a terrible cost
A Lord Howe Island woodhen Gallirallus sylvestris. Credit: Toby Hudson

Bringing back extinct species could lead to biodiversity loss rather than gain, according to work featuring University of Queensland researchers.

UQ scientist Professor Hugh Possingham said the research suggested further stretching already-strained budgets to cover the costs of de-extinction could endanger extant species (species still in existence).

“If the risk of failure and the costs associated with establishing viable populations could also be calculated, estimates of potential net losses or missed opportunities would probably be considerably higher,” Professor Possingham said.

“De-extinction could be useful for inspiring new science and could be beneficial for conservation if we ensure it doesn’t reduce existing conservation resources.

“However, in general it is best if we focus on the many species that need our help now.”

“Given the considerable potential for missed opportunity, and risks inherent in assuming a resurrected species would fulfil its role as an ecosystem engineer or flagship species, it is unlikely that de-extinction could be justified on grounds of biodiversity conservation.”

The study was led by Dr Joseph Bennett, formerly of the ARC Centre for Environmental Decisions at UQ and now of Carleton University, Canada.

It analysed the number of species governments in New Zealand and New South Wales could afford to conserve.

“We based cost estimates on recently extinct species and similar extant species,” Dr Bennett said.

The Lord Howe pigeon, eastern bettong, bush moa and Waitomo frog were among the extinct species included in calculations.

The researchers found reintroducing some recently extinct species to their old habitats might improve biodiversity locally, but government-funded conservation for 11 focal in New Zealand would sacrifice conservation for nearly three times as many (31) extant species.

External funding for conservation of the five focal extinct NSW species could instead be used to conserve more than eight times as many (42) extant species.

Although the technology for de-extinction is still some way off, the research found that careful thought would be required about what to reintroduce, and where.

Professor Possingham is Chief Scientist with The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation, and a scientist with UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, The Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at UQ, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-02-resurrecting-extinct-species-terrible.html#jCp

North America’s skeleton crew of megafauna

Proc.Royal Soc.B:Biological Sciences  January 11 2017
What North America’s skeleton crew of megafauna tells us about community disassembly
Matt Davis
Functional trait diversity is increasingly used to model future changes in community structure despite a poor understanding of community disassembly’s effects on functional diversity. By tracking the functional diversity of the North American large mammal fauna through the End-Pleistocene megafaunal extinction and up to the present, I show that contrary to expectations, functionally unique species are no more likely to go extinct than functionally redundant species. This makes total functional richness loss no worse than expected given similar taxonomic richness declines. However, where current species sit in functional space relative to pre-anthropogenic baselines is not random and likely explains ecosystem functional changes better than total functional richness declines. Prehistoric extinctions have left many extant species functionally isolated and future extinctions will cause even more rapid drops in functional richness.