Methane, lots & lots of methane, generated by a nickel loving organism called methanosarcina, may have caused the Permian Extinction, AKA The Great Dying with assistance from the nickel producing volcanic Siberian Traps.
The perpetrators, this new work suggests, were not asteroids, volcanoes, or raging coal fires, all of which have been implicated previously. Rather, they were a form of microbes — specifically, methane-producing archaea called Methanosarcina — that suddenly bloomed explosively in the oceans, spewing prodigious amounts of methane into the atmosphere and dramatically changing the climate and the chemistry of the oceans.
Volcanoes are not entirely off the hook, according to this new scenario; they have simply been demoted to accessories to the crime. The reason for the sudden, explosive growth of the microbes, new evidence shows, may have been their novel ability to use a rich source of organic carbon, aided by a sudden influx of a nutrient required for their growth: the element nickel, emitted by massive volcanism at just that time.
The burst of methane would have increased carbon dioxide levels in the oceans, resulting in ocean acidification — similar to the acidification predicted from human-induced climate change. Independent evidence suggests that marine organisms with heavily calcified shells were preferentially wiped out during the end-Permian extinction, which is consistent with acidification.
In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, many today find it inconceivable that we could possibly be responsible for destroying the integrity of our planet’s ecology. There are psychological barriers to even imagining that what we love so much could be lost — could be destroyed forever. As a result, many of us refuse to contemplate it. Like an audience entertained by a magician, we allow ourselves to be deceived by those with a stake in persuading us to ignore reality.
For example, we continue to use the world’s atmosphere as an open sewer for the daily dumping of more than 90 million tons of gaseous waste. If trends continue, the global temperature will keep rising, triggering “world-altering events,” Kolbert writes. According to a conservative and unchallenged calculation by the climatologist James Hansen, the man-made pollution already in the atmosphere traps as much extra heat energy every 24 hours as would be released by the explosion of 400,000 Hiroshima-class nuclear bombs. The resulting rapid warming of both the atmosphere and the ocean, which Kolbert notes has absorbed about one-third of the carbon dioxide we have produced, is wreaking havoc on earth’s delicately balanced ecosystems. It threatens both the web of living species with which we share the planet and the future viability of civilization. “By disrupting these systems,” Kolbert writes, “we’re putting our own survival in danger.”
To read more, click Something to Consider, a blurb done back in November of 2011 talking about the same thing with phase transitions added in for good measure.