Study traces impacts of extreme Triassic-era global warming

Earth recovers slowly from periods of extreme global warming. Image courtesy NASA.

Carbon cycle breakdown may have enable temps to spiral out of control

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — One of the last episodes of extreme global warming resulted in a near-total breakdown of Earth’s biological systems — a 5-million-year ‘dead zone’ at the start of the Triassic period during which almost no new species appeared.

A study jointly led by the University of Leeds and China University of Geosciences (Wuhan), in collaboration with the University of Erlangen-Nurnburg (Germany), shows the cause of this lengthy devastation was a temperature rise to lethal levels in the tropics: around 50-60 degrees Celsius on land, and 40 degrees at the sea-surface.

“Global warming has long been linked to the end-Permian mass extinction, but this study is the first to show extreme temperatures kept life from re-starting in Equatorial latitudes for millions of years,” said the study’s lead author, Yadong Sun, who is based in Leeds while completing a joint PhD in geology.

It is also the first study to show water temperatures close to the ocean’s surface can reach 40 degrees Celsius — a near-lethal value at which marine life dies and photosynthesis stops. Until now, climate modellers have assumed sea-surface temperatures can’t surpass 30 degrees Celsius. The findings may help us understand future climate change patterns.

“Nobody has ever dared say that past climates attained these levels of heat,” said Professor Paul Wignall, of the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds. “Hopefully future global warming won’t get anywhere near temperatures of 250 million years ago, but if it does we have shown that it may take millions of years to recover,” he said.

The dead zone would have been a strange world — very wet in the tropics but with very little plant diversity, perhaps only heat-tolerant ferns and shrubs.

No fish or marine reptiles were to be found in the tropics, only shellfish, and virtually no land animals existed because their high metabolic rate made it impossible to deal with the extreme temperatures. Only the polar regions provided a refuge from the baking heat.

Before the end-Permian mass extinction the Earth had teemed with plants and animals including primitive reptiles and amphibians, and a wide variety of sea creatures including coral and sea lillies.

The researchers say the broken world scenario was caused by a breakdown in global carbon cycling. In normal circumstances, plants help regulate temperature by absorbing Co2 and burying it as dead plant matter. Without plants, levels of Co2 can rise unchecked, which causes temperatures to increase.

Sun and his colleagues collected data from 15,000 ancient conodonts (tiny teeth of extinct eel-like fishes) extracted from two tonnes of rocks from South China. Conodonts form a skeleton using oxygen. The isotopes of oxygen in skeletons are temperature controlled, so by studying the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the conodonts he was able to detect temperature levels hundreds of millions of years ago.

The study is the latest collaboration in a 20-year research partnership between the University of Leeds and China University of Geosciences in Wuhan. It was funded by the Chinese Science Foundation. The study was published Oct. 19 in the journal Science. It is the most detailed temperature record of this study period (252-247 million years ago) to date.

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