Great surprise: Deccan flood volcanism emitted gases

The only documented volcanic eruption resembling those thought to characterise effusion of flood basalts was of the Icelandic Laki fissure in 1783. At 14 km3 its lava volume was minuscule compared with those of ancient flood-basalt flows, but it did have a remarkable effect on the atmosphere and climate of the Northern Hemisphere. A bluish, ground-hugging dry fog spread over much of Europe and North America. The fog caused severe chest ailments and was probably full of sulfuric acid aerosols. Such droplets also serve to increase the reflectivity of the atmosphere, thereby reducing solar heating. In fact, witnesses remarked on how dim the summer sun appeared that year, although it seems not to be particularly chilly. The climatic effects emerged the following winter with the average temperature in Paris falling by almost 5°C from the long-term average. On Iceland itself, crops failed during the eruption, but worse was to come. Both livestock and humans developed the awful bone lesions associated with fluorosis, for the basalt magma emitted hydrogen fluoride as well as SO2. Human and animal skeletons from the time show gross bone deformities, often like fibrous needles that would have grown through living flesh. Gas emissions from modern basalt flows chemically similar to those of Laki and far larger flood basalts are well documented, and the potential climate effects of continental flood basalt magmatism have been modelled repeatedly using those data.

Measuring actual gas contents of the magmas that fed ancient lava flows is difficult, simply because most magma degasses before it finally crystallises. Even vesicles are devoid of pristine gas that formed them, due to later percolation of fluids. In a few extremely fresh flows some of the original magma may have been preserved as glassy blobs trapped within phenocrysts such as olivine or Ca-plagioclase that formed in magma chambers before eruption. A group from the Open University, UK has analysed sulfur and chlorine content in four such minute samples by electron probe and XRF, finding levels up to 1400 and 900 ppm respectively (Self, S. et al. 2008. Sulfur and chlorine in late Cretaceous Deccan Magmas and eruptive gas release. Science, v. 319, p. 1654-1657).  The sulfur values are not unusual compared with modern basaltic glasses that have not lost their magmatic gases, though chlorine concentrations are somewhat high in the known range.

The climatic and environmental implications of both gases are noteworthy, mainly because each basalt flood would have emitted hundreds to thousands of teragrams of each annually – vastly more than modern emissions by both humanity and active volcanoes. In the lower atmosphere effects would have been like those of Laki – locally choking fogs acid rain, and cooling. Had chlorine reached the stratosphere it would have destroyed ozone to increase exposure of terrestrial life to UV radiation. So quite a few large-scale kill mechanisms may be ascribed to continental flood basalts such as the Deccan province.

This may well be the first direct evidence for actual gas-emission potential of ancient basalt magma samples. Sadly, however, the specimens containing glass were erupted some time before the K-T extinction event – the on-line data supplement reports ages of 66-68 Ma for the lower Deccan flows in which glass inclusions occur, between 0.5 to 2.5 Ma earlier than the end of the Cretaceous. That undermines, to some extent, the need to have analysed the glasses in the first place, when modern data serve well for modelling the effects of CFBs.  Still, even at the low end of S and Cl contents of modern undegassed basalt magmas, the stupendous volume of any flood basalt province – up to millions of km3 – would have repeatedly placed great stresses on the biosphere. The wonder is that not all CFBs are associated with mass extinctions, so maybe the environmentally less-destructive CFB provinces since 250 Ma ago (8 out of 11) involved magmas with extremely low S and Cl contents…

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