The dominant feature of Phanerozoic stratigraphy is surely the way that many of the formally named major time boundaries in the Stratigraphic Column coincide with sudden shifts in the abundance and diversity of fossil organisms. That is hardly surprising since all the globally recognised boundaries between Eras, Periods and lesser divisions in relative time were, and remain, based on palaeontology. Two boundaries between Eras – the Palaeozoic-Mesozoic (Permian-Triassic) at 252 Ma and Mesozoic-Cenozoic (Cretaceous-Palaeogene) at 66 Ma – and a boundary between Periods – Triassic-Jurassic at 201 Ma – coincide with enormous declines in biological diversity. They are defined by mass extinctions involving the loss of up to 95 % of all species living immediately before the events. Two other extinction events that match up to such awesome statistics do not define commensurately important stratigraphic boundaries. The Frasnian Stage of the late-Devonian closed at 372 Ma with a prolonged series of extinctions (~20 Ma) that eliminated at least 70% of all species that were alive before it happened. The last 10 Ma of the Ordovician period witnessed two extinction events that snuffed out about the same number of species. The Cambrian Period is marked by 3 separate events that in percentage terms look even more extreme than those at the end of the Ordovician, but there are a great many less genera known from Cambrian times than formed fossils during the Ordovician.
Empirical coincidences between the precise timing of several mass extinctions with that of large igneous events – mainly flood basalts – suggest a repeated volcanic connection with deterioration of conditions for life. That is the case for four of the Famous Five, the end-Ordovician die-off having been ascribed to other causes; global cooling that resulted in south-polar glaciation of the Gondwana supercontinent and/or an extra-solar gamma-ray burst (predicated on the preferential extinction of Ordovician near-surface, planktonic fauna such as some trilobite families). Neither explanation is entirely satisfactory, but new evidence has emerged that may support a volcanic trigger (Jones, D.S. et al. 2017. A volcanic trigger for the Late Ordovician mass extinction? Mercury data from south China and Laurentia. Geology, v. 45, p. 631-634; doi:10.1130/G38940.1). David Jones and his US-Japan colleagues base their hypothesis on several very strong mercury concentrations in thin sequences in the western US and southern China of late Ordovician marine sediments that precede, but do not exactly coincide with, extinction pulses. They ascribe these to large igneous events that had global effects, on the basis of similar Hg anomalies associated with extinction-related LIPs. Yet no such volcanic provinces have been recorded from that time-range of the Ordovician, although rift-related volcanism of roughly that age has been reported from Korea. That does not rule out the possibility as LIPs, such as the Ontong Java Plateau, are known from parts of the modern ocean floor that formed in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Ordovician ocean floor was subducted long ago.
The earlier Hg pulses coincide with evidence for late Ordovician glaciations over what is now Africa and eastern South America. The authors suggest that massive volcanism may then have increased the Earth’s albedo by blasting sulfates into the stratosphere. A similar effect may have resulted from chemical weathering of widely exposed flood basalts which draws down atmospheric CO2. The later pulses coincide with the end of Gondwanan glaciation, which may signify massive emanation of volcanic CO2 into the atmosphere and global warming. Despite being somewhat speculative, in the absence of evidence, a common link between the Big Five plus several other major extinctions and LIP volcanism would quieten their popular association with major asteroid and/or comet impacts currently being reinvigorated by drilling results from the K-Pg Chicxulub crater offshore of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Plot the times of peaks in the rates of extinction during the Mesozoic against those of flood basalt outpourings closest in time to the die-offs and a straight line can be plotted through the data. There is sufficiently low deviation between it and the points that any statistician would agree that the degree of fit is very good. Many geoscientists have used this empirical relationship to claim that all Mesozoic mass extinctions, including the three largest (end-Permian, end-Triassic and end-Cretaceous) were caused in some way by massive basaltic volcanism. The fact that the points are almost evenly spaced – roughly every 30 Ma, except for a few gaps – has suggested to some that there is some kind of rhythm connecting the two very different kinds of event.
Leaving aside that beguiling periodicity, the hypothesis of a flood-basalt – extinction link has a major weakness. The only likely intermediary is atmospheric, through its composition and/or climate; flood volcanism was probably not violent. Both probably settle down quickly in geological terms. Moreover, flood basalt volcanism is generally short-lived (a few Ma at most) and seems not to be continuous, unlike that at plate margins which is always going on at one or other place. The great basalt piles of Siberia, around the Central Atlantic margins and in Western India are made up of individual thick and extensive flows separated by fossil soils or boles. This suggests that magma blurted out only occasionally, and was separated by long periods of normality; say between 10 and 100 thousand years. Evidence for the duration of major accelerations, either from stratigraphy and palaeontology or from proxies such as peaks and troughs in the isotopic composition of carbon (e.g. EPN Ni life and mass extinction) is that they too occurred swiftly; in a matter of tens of thousand years. Most of the points on the flood-basalt – extinction plot are too imprecise in the time dimension to satisfy a definite relationship. Opinion has swung behind an instantaneous impact hypothesis for the K-P boundary event rather than one involving the Deccan Traps in India, simply because the best dating of the Deccan suggests extinction seems to have occurred when no flows were being erupted, while the thin impact-related layer in sediments the world over is exactly at the point dividing Cretaceous flora and fauna from those of the succeeding Palaeogene.
Yet no such link to an extraterrestrial factor is known to exist for any other major extinctions, so volcanism seems to be ‘the only game in town’ for the rest. Until basalt dating is universally more precise than it has been up to the present the case is ‘not proven’; but, in the manner of the Scottish criminal law, each is a ‘cold case’ which can be reopened. The previous article hardens the evidence for a volcanic driver behind the greatest known extinction at the end of the Permian Period. And in short-order, another of the Big Five seems to have been resolved in the same way. A flood basalt province covering a large area of west and north-west Australia (known as the Kalkarindji large igneous province)has long been known to be of roughly Cambrian age but does it tie in with the earliest Phanerozoic mass extinction at the Lower to Middle Cambrian boundary? New age data suggests that it does at the level of a few hundred thousand years (Jourdan, F. et al. 2014. High-precision dating of the Kalkarindji large igneous province, Australia, and synchrony with the Early-Middle Cambrian (Stage 4-5) extinction. Geology, v. 42, p. 543-546). The Kalkarindji basalts have high sulfur contents and are also associated with widespread breccias that suggest that some of the volcanism was sufficiently explosive to have blasted sulfur-oxygen gases into the stratosphere; a known means of causing rapid and massive climatic cooling as well as increasing oceanic acidity. The magma also passed through late Precambrian sedimentary basins which contain abundant organic-rich shales that later sourced extensive petroleum fields. Their thermal metamorphism could have vented massive amounts of CO2 and methane to result in climatic warming. It may have been volcanically-driven climatic chaos that resulted in the demise of much of the earliest tangible marine fauna on Earth to create also a sudden fall in the oxygen content of the Cambrian ocean basins.