Early land plants and oceanic extinctions

In September 2022 Earth-logs highlighted how greening of the continents affected the composition of the continental crust. It now seems that was not the only profound change that the first land plants wrought on the Earth system. Beginning in the Silurian, the spread of vegetation swept across the continents during the Devonian Period. From a height of less than 30 cm among the earliest species by the Late Devonian the stature of plants went through a large increase with extensive forests of primitive tree-sized conifers, cycads, horsetails and sporiferous lycopods up to 10 m tall. Their rapid evolution and spread was not hampered by any herbivores. It was during the Devonian that tetrapod amphibians emerged from the seas, probably feeding on burgeoning terrestrial invertebrates. The Late Devonian was marked by five distinct episodes of extinction, two of which comprise the Devonian mass extinction: one of the ‘Big Five’. This affected both marine and terrestrial organisms. Neither flood volcanism nor extraterrestrial impact can be linked to the extinction episodes. Rather they marked a long drawn-out period of repeated environmental stress.

Phytoplankton bloom off the east coast of Scotland ‘fertilised’ by effluents carried by the Tay and Forth estuaries.

One possibility is that a side effect of the greening of the land was the release of massive amounts of nutrients to the seas that would have resulted in large-scale blooms of phytoplankton whose death and decay depleted oxygen levels in the water column. That is a process seen today where large amounts of commercial fertilisers end up in water bodies to result in their eutrophication. Matthew Smart and others from Indiana University-Purdue University, USA and the University of Southampton, UK, geochemically analysed Devonian lake deposits from Greenland and Scotland to test this hypothesis (Smart, M.S. et al. 2022. Enhanced terrestrial nutrient release during the Devonian emergence and expansion of forests: Evidence from lacustrine phosphorus and geochemical records. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 134, early release article;  DOI: 10.1130/B36384.1).

Smart et al. show that in the Middle and Late Devonian the lacustrine strata show cycles in their abundance of phosphorus (P an important plant nutrient) that parallel evidence for wet and dry cycles in the lacustrine basins. The cycles show that the same phosphorus abundance patterns occurred at roughly the same times at five separate sites. This may suggest a climatic control forced by changes in Earth’s orbital behaviour, similar to the Milankovich Effect on the Pleistocene climate and at other times in Phanerozoic history. The wet and dry intervals show up in the changing ratio between strontium and copper abundances (Sr/Cu): high values signify wet conditions, low suggesting dry. The wet periods show high ratios of rubidium to strontium (Rb/Sr) that suggest enhanced weathering, while dry periods show the reverse – decreased weathering.

When conditions were dry and weathering low, P built up in the lake sediments, whereas during wet conditions P decreases; i.e. it was exported from the lakes, presumably to the oceans. The authors interpret the changes in relation to the fate of plants under the different conditions. Dry periods would result in widespread death of plants and their rotting, which would release their P content to the shallowing, more stagnant lakes. When conditions were wetter root growth would have increased weathering and more rainfall would flush P from the now deeper and more active lake basins. The ultimate repository of the sediments and freshwater, the oceans, would therefore be subject to boom and bust (wet and dry) as regards nutrition and phytoplankton blooms. Dead phytoplankton, in turn, would use up dissolved oxygen during their decay. That would lead to oceanic anoxia, which also occurred in pulses during the Devonian, that may have contributed to animal extinction.

See also: Linking mass extinctions to the expansion and radiation of land plants, EurekaAlert 10 November 2022; Mass Extinctions May Have Been Driven by the Evolution of Tree Roots, SciTechDaily, 14 November 2022.

Milankovich precession and the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

About 56 Ma ago there occurred some of the most dramatic biological changes since the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary. They included rapid expansion and diversification of mammals and land plants, and a plunge in the number of deep-water foraminifera. Global cooling from the Cretaceous hothouse was rudely reversed by sudden global warming of about 5 to 10°C. Some climatologists have ascribed bugbear status to the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) as a possible scenario for future anthropogenic global warming. The widely accepted cause is a massive blurt into the Palaeocene atmosphere of greenhouse gases, but what caused it is enthusiastically debated. The climate shift is associated with a sudden decrease in the proportion of 13C in marine sediments: a negative spike in δ13C. Because photosynthesis favours the lighter 12C, organic matter has a low δ13C, so a great deal of buried organic carbon may have escaped from the ocean floor, most likely in the form of methane gas. However, massive burning of living terrestrial biomass would produce the same carbon-isotope signal, but absence of evidence for mass conflagration supports methane release. Methane is temporarily held in marine sediments in the form of gas hydrate (clathrate), an ice-like solid that forms at low temperatures on the deep seafloor. Warming of deep sea water or a decrease in pressure, if sea level falls, destabilise clathrates thereby releasing methane gas: the ‘clathrate gun hypothesis’. The main issue is what mechanism may have pulled the trigger for a monstrous methane release.

Massive leak of natural gas – mainly methane – off Sweden in the Baltic Sea, from the probably sabotaged Nord Stream pipeline. (Source: Swedish coastguard agency)

Many have favoured a major igneous event. Between 55.0 and 55.8 Ma basaltic magmatism– continuing today in Iceland – formed the North Atlantic Igneous Province. It involved large-scale intrusion of sills as well as outpourings of flood basalts and coincided with the initial rifting of Greenland from northern Europe (see: Smoking gun for end-Palaeocene warming: an igneous connection; July/August 2004). The occurrence of impact ejecta in end-Palaeocene sediments off the east coast of the US has spawned an extraterrestrial hypothesis for the warming, which could account for the negative spike in δ13C as the product of a burning terrestrial biosphere (see: Impact linked to the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary event; October 2016). Less headline-grabbing is the possibility that the event was part and parcel of the Milankovich effect: an inevitability in the complex interplay between the three astronomical components that affect Earth’s orbital and rotational behaviour: eccentricity, axial tilt and precession. A group of geoscientists from China and the US, led by Mingsong Li of Peking University, have investigated in minute detail the ups and downs of δ13C around 56 Ma in drill cores recovered from a sequence of Palaeocene and Eocene continental-shelf sediments in Maryland, USA (Li, M., Bralower, T.J. et al. 2022. Astrochronology of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Nature Communications, v. 13, Article 5618; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-33390-x).

The study involved sampling sediment for carbon- and oxygen-isotope analysis at depth intervals between 3 and 10 cm over a 35 m section through the lower Eocene and uppermost Palaeocene. Calcium abundances in the core were logged at a resolution of 5 mm using an X-ray fluorescence instrument. The results link to variations in CaCO3 in the sediments across the PETM event. Another dataset involves semi-continuous measurements of magnetic susceptibility (MS) along the core. These measurements are able to indicate variations in delivery to the ocean of dissolved calcium and detrital magnetic minerals as climate and continental weathering vary through time. They are widely known to be good recorders of Milankovich cycles. After processing, the Ca and MS data sets show cyclical fluctuations relative to depth within the cores. ‘Tuning’ their frequencies to the familiar time series of Milankovich astronomical climate forcing reveals a close match to what would be expected if the climate fluctuations were paced by the 26 ka axial precession signal. My post of 17 June 2022 about the influence of precession over ‘iceberg armadas’ during the Pleistocene might be useful to re-read in this context. This correlation enabled the researchers to convert depth in the cores to time, so that the timing of fluctuations in carbon- and oxygen-isotope data that the PETM had created could be considered against various hypotheses for its cause. The ‘excursions’ of both began at the same time and reached the maxima of their changes from Palaeocene values over about 6,000 years. The authors consider that is far too long to countenance the release of methane as a result of asteroidal impact, or by massive burning of terrestrial vegetation. The other option that the beginning of the North Atlantic Igneous Province had been the trigger may also be ruled out on two grounds: the magmatism began earlier, and it continued for far longer. The onset of the PETM coincides with an extreme in precession-related climatic forcing. So Li et al. consider that a quirk in the Milankovich Effect could have played a role in triggering massive methane release. This might also explain features of the global calcium record in seafloor sediments as results of a brief period of ocean acidification during the PETM. Such an event would play havoc with carbonate-secreting organisms, such as foraminifera, by lowering the dissolved carbonate ion content on which they depend for their shells: hence their suffering considerable extinction. Of course, the other elements of astronomical forcing – eccentricity and axial tilt – would also have been operating on global climate at the time.  The long-term 100 and 405 ka eccentricity cycles may have played a role in amplifying warming, which may have resulted in increased burial of organic carbon and thus the amount of methane buried beneath the seabed.

Magnetic reversal and demise of the Neanderthals?

A rumour emerged last week that the Neanderthals met their end as one consequence of an extraterrestrial, possibly even extragalactic influence. Curiously, it stems from a recent discovery in New Zealand, where of course Neanderthals never set foot and nor did anatomically modern humans, the ancestors of Maori people, until a mere 800 years ago. It started with an ancient log from a kauri tree (Agathis australis), a species that Maoris revere. Found in excavations of boggy ground, the log weighed about 60 tons, so it was a valuable commodity, especially as it is illegal to fell living kauri trees. The wood is unaffected by burial and insect attack, has a regular grain and colour throughout, so is ideal for monumental Maori sculpture. Such swamp kauri also preserves their own life history in annual growth rings, and the log in question has 1700 of them. Using growth rings to chart climate variation gives the most detailed records of the recent past, provided the wood can be dated. Matching growth ring records from several trees of different ages is key to charting local climate with annual precision over several millennia.

An ancient kauri tree log recovered by swampland excavations in New Zealand. (Credit: Jonathan Palmer, in Voosen 2021)

Radiocarbon dating indicates that this particular kauri tree was growing around 42 thousand years ago. That is close to the upper limit for using 14C concentration in organic matter to determine age because the isotope has a short half-life (5730 years). In this case samples of the log would contain only about 0.7 % of its original complement of radioactive carbon. Cosmic rays generate 14C when they hit nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere and it enters COand thus the carbon cycle. Carbon dioxide taken up by photosynthesis to contribute carbon to plants contains only about one part per trillion of 14C. Consequently wood as ancient as that in the kauri log contains almost vanishingly small amounts, yet it can still be measured using mass spectrometry to yield an accurate radiometric age.

The particularly interesting thing about the 42 ka date is that it coincides with the timing of the last reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, known as the Laschamps event. The kauri tree bears detailed witness through its growth rings to the environmental effects of a decrease in that field to almost zero as the poles flipped. The bulk of cosmic rays are normally deflected away from the Earth by the geomagnetic field, but during a reversal a great many more pass through the atmosphere, the most energetic reaching the surface and the biosphere. The kauri growth rings record fluctuations in the generation of 14C by their passage and thereby the geomagnetic field strength, which was only 6% of normal levels from 42.3 to 41.6 ka (Cooper, A. and 32 others  2021. A global environmental crisis 42,000 years ago. Science, v. 371, p. 811-818; DOI: 10.1126/science.abb8677). This coincided with an unrelated succession of periods of low solar activity and a reduced solar ‘wind’, which also provides some cosmic-rayprotection when activity is at normal levels; a ‘double whammy’. One consequence would have been destruction of stratospheric ozone by cosmic rays and thus increased ultraviolet exposure at ground level.

Combined with the highly precise growth-ring dating, the climatic changes over the 1700 year lifetime of the kauri tree can be linked to other records of environmental change. These include glacial ice- and lake-bed cores together with stalactite layers. Apparently, the Laschamps geomagnetic reversal coincided with abrupt shifts in wind belts and precipitation, perhaps triggering major droughts in the southern continents. Highly plausible, but some of the other speculations are less certain. For instance, some time around 42 ka, but far from well-established, Australia’s marsupial megafauna experienced major extinctions, the Neanderthals disappear from the fossil record and modern humans started decorating caves in Europe (20 ka after they did in Indonesia). In fact, speculation becomes somewhat silly, with suggestions that early Europeans went to live in caves because of increased exposure to UV (they knew, did they, while Neanderthals didn’t?), their painting and, by implication, their entire culture shifting through the shock and awe of mighty displays of the aurora borealis. Just because the number 42 is (or was), according to the late Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘the answer to life, the universe and everything’, the authors tag the episode as the ‘Adams Event’. In their summary for The Conversation they include an animation with a quintessential Stephen Fry narrative, which Earth-logs readers can judge for themselves. Perhaps ‘Lockdown Trauma’ has a lot more to answer for, other than upsurges in Zoom conferences, knitting and gourmet experimentation …

See also: Voosen, P. 2021. Kauri trees mark magnetic flip 42,000 years ago. Science, v. 371, p. 766; DOI: 10.1126/science.371.6531.766