The Permian Extinction, 200 million years ago, was the single greatest species die-off in the history of the world. Over 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species died. Despite being such a large event, its direct cause has eluded scientists so far. Theories range from asteroid impacts to volcanic eruptions to increased ocean acidification. A submitted to the journal Global and Planetary Change provides new evidence for a different option: too much burning coal.
The research was conducted by Benjamin Burger, a professor at Utah State University. Burger was studying rock layers in Sheep Creek Valley in Utah when he found some surprising elements in one of the layers. According to the analysis, the rocks contain high levels of lead, mercury, carbon, and zinc.
Together, these point to extreme levels of coal burning as a cause of the extinction. Burning coal produces mercury, lead, zinc, and other metals, and as we all know releases large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This can lead to high levels of carbon in the rock layer. Trace amounts of other elements also found in the rocks reinforce the hypothesis.
Burning coal has been , but until now there was never a whole lot of evidence for it. The idea is that volcanic eruptions released lava that found their way into underground coal deposits built up over previous eons and ignited them. The fallout released tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increased the acidification of the oceans, and triggered global warming and other forms of climate change.
This study is still awaiting publication, so the finding has yet to be confirmed by peer review. But if the study holds up, it could show us what’s in store for our planet in the present. It’s no coincidence that coal burning led to the largest mass extinction in the Earth’s history: it’s very bad for life and for the planet. Right now, we’re in the middle of another mass extinction caused by our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, and there’s a good chance that our own species could be one of the casualties.