Earth's biggest ‘whodunnit’: unravelling the clues in the case of the end–Permian mass extinction

Rosalind V. White


The mass extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago, was the most devastating loss of life that Earth has ever experienced. It is estimated that ca. 96% of marine species were wiped out and land plants, reptiles, amphibians and insects also suffered. The causes of this catastrophic event are currently a topic of intense debate. The geological record points to significant environmental disturbances, for example, global warming and stagnation of ocean water.

A key issue is whether the Earth's feedback mechanisms can become unstable on their own, or whether some forcing is required to precipitate a catastrophe of this magnitude. A prime suspect for pushing Earth's systems into a critical condition is massive end–Permian Siberian volcanism, which would have pumped large quantities of carbon dioxide and toxic gases into the atmosphere. Recently, it has been postulated that Earth was also the victim of a bolide impact at this time. If further research substantiates this claim, it raises some intriguing questions. The Cretaceous–Tertiary mass extinction, 65 million years ago, was contemporaneous with both an impact and massive volcanism. Are both types of calamity necessary to drive Earth to the brink of faunal cataclysm? We do not presently have enough pieces of the jigsaw to solve the mystery of the end–Permian extinction, but the forensic work continues.

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