Fossil fuel, mercury and the end-Palaeozoic catastrophe

Siberian flood-basalt flows in the Putorana Plateau, Taymyr Peninsula, Russia. (Credit: Paul Wignall)

The end of the Permian Period (~252 Ma ago) saw the loss of 90% of marine fossil species and 70% of those known from terrestrial sediments: the greatest known extinction in Earth’s history. In their naming of newly discovered life forms, palaeontologists can become quite lyrical. Extinctions, however, really stretch their imagination. They call the Permo-Triassic boundary event ‘The Great Dying’. Why not ‘Permageddon’? Sadly, that was snaffled in the 1980s by an astonishingly short-haired heavy-metal tribute band. Enough bathos … The close of the Palaeozoic left a great many ecological niches to be filled by adaptive radiation during the Triassic and later Mesozoic times. Coinciding with the largest known flood-basalt outpouring – the three million cubic kilometres of Siberian Traps – the P-Tr event seemed to be ‘done and dusted’ after that possible connection was discovered in the mid 1990s. Notwithstanding, the quest for a gigantic, causative impact crater continues (see: Palaeobiology Earth-logs, May, September and October 2004), albeit among a dwindling circle of enthusiasts. The Siberian Traps are suitably vast to snuff the fossil record, for their eruption must have belched all manner of climate-changing gases and dusts into the atmosphere; CO2 to encourage global warming; SO2 and dusts as cooling agents. There is also evidence of a role for geochemical toxicity (see: Nickel, life and the end-Permian extinction, June 2014). The extinctions accompanied not only climate change but also a catastrophic fall in atmospheric oxygen content (see: Homing in on the great end-Permian extinction, April 2003; When rain kick-started evolution, December 2019). Recovery of the biosphere during the early Triassic was exceedingly slow.

Research focussed on the P-Tr boundary eventually uncovered an element of pure chance. Shales in Canada that span the boundary show major, negative δ13C excursions in the carbon-isotope record that coincide with fly ash in the analysed layers. This material is similar in all respects to that emitted from coal-fired power stations (see: Coal and the end-Permian mass extinction, March 2011). The part of Siberia onto which the flood basalts were erupted is rich in Permian coal measures and oil shales that lay close to the surface 252 Ma ago. The coal ash and massive emissions of CO2 may have resulted from their burning by the flood basalt event. Now evidence has emerged that this did indeed happen (Elkins-Tanton, L.T. et al. 2020. Field evidence for coal combustion links the 252 Ma Siberian Traps with global carbon disruption. Geology, v. 48, early publication; DOI: 10.1130/G47365.1).

The US, Canadian and Russian team found large quantities of burnt coal and woody material, and bituminous blobs in 600 m thick volcanic ashes at the base of the Siberian traps themselves. They concluded that the magma chamber from which the flood basalts emerged had incorporated sizeable volumes of the coal measures, leading to their combustion and distillation. This would have released CO2 enriched in light 12C due to isotopic fractionation by biological means, i.e. its δ13C would have been sufficiently negative to affect the carbon locked up in the Canadian P-Tr boundary-layer shales that show the sharp isotopic anomalies. The magnitude of the anomalies suggest that between six to ten thousand billion tons of carbon released as CO2 or methane by interaction of the Siberian Traps with sediments through which their magma passed could have created the global δ13C anomalies. That is about one tenth of the organic carbon originally locked in the Permian coal measures beneath the flood basalts

Another paper whose publication coincided with that by Elkins-Tanton et al. suggests that environmental mercury appears to have followed the same geochemical course as did carbon at the end of the Palaeozoic Era (Dal Corso, J. and 9 others 2020. Permo–Triassic boundary carbon and mercury cycling linked to terrestrial ecosystem collapse. Nature Communications, v. 11, paper 2962; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-16725-4). This group, based at Leeds and Oxford Universities, UK and the University of Geosciences in Wuhan, China, base their findings on biogeochemical modelling of the global carbon and mercury cycles at the end of the Permian. Their view is that the coincidence in marine sediments at the P-Tr boundary of a short-lived spike in mercury and an anomaly in its isotopic composition with the depletion in 13C, described earlier, shows an intimate link between mercury and the biological carbon cycle in the oceans at the time. They suggest that this synergy marks ecosystem collapse and derives ‘from a massive oxidation of terrestrial biomass’; i.e. burning of organic material on the land surface. Their modelling hints at huge wildfires in equatorial peatlands but also a role for the Siberian flood-basalt volcanism and the incorporation of coal measures into the Siberian Trap magma chamber.