In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Benjamin Black of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discusses the connection between volcanism and one of the largest extinction events in Earth’s history.
Ben Black is a postdoctoral researcher in geology and geochemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research seeks to understand the consequences of volcanism as it relates to the end-Permian mass extinction. He earned his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr. Benjamin Black - Permian Extinction and Volcanism
I once killed thirty four mosquitoes just by slapping my hand against my leg. This was in Arctic Siberia, where I spent a few summers during my Ph.D., studying the black cliffs of stacked lavas that emerge where rivers have cut down through the landscape. Aside from the mosquitoes and an occasional startled caribou, Siberia today is a relatively peaceful place. But 252 million years ago, Siberia was the scene of one of the greatest volcanic convulsions known to geologists. These eruptions involved enough magma to cover the entire continental U.S. under almost half a kilometer of lava. The eruptions coincided with the end-Permian mass extinction, one of the few moments in the past 500 million years when life came closest to vanishing entirely.
My research focuses on understanding whether and how these Siberian eruptions and the end-Permian extinction might be linked. I was in Siberia as part of a team working to sample and explore the volcanic rocks. We used a combination of chemical analyses and climate modeling to quantify and map out the pulses of acid rain and ozone depletion that could have emanated from the eruptions. Geologists are still trying to unravel the full consequences of the volcanism, but these sudden bursts of caustic acid rain and elevated ultraviolet radiation could have significantly contributed to deteriorating environmental conditions on land.
In the context of ancient human history, we often think of events that occurred thousands of years ago as impressively strange and distant. The part of my research that I find most wonderful is that, with the help of our samples from Siberia and a supercomputer in Wyoming, we are beginning to understand what life might have been like for a plant growing on Earth 252 million years ago, when rain as acidic as lemon juice began falling out of the sky.