The Earth’s oceans were giant acidic baths during greatest extinction event

10 Apr 2015

Earth was a horrible place to exist on 252m years ago, with new research revealing that, following an enormous volcanic eruption, CO2 filled the atmosphere and the oceans turned into giant acidic baths.

During the end of the Permian Period, affectionately referred to in the scientific community as the ‘great dying’, the amount of harmful CO2 that entered the planet’s atmosphere from volcanoes based in modern-day Siberia was so large and happened in such a short space of time that the planet couldn’t absorb it all.

According to Nature, over the course of a period of 10,000 years, the pH levels of the Earth’s oceans dropped by 0.7, which was enough to wipe out a significant portion of the ocean’s life, including the infamous trilobite, which was one of the most widespread lifeforms on Earth 270m years ago before disappearing suddenly during the ‘great dying’.

Food for thought on climate change

Understandably, given the vast quantities of CO2 currently being pumped into the atmosphere due to mankind’s industry, there are worrying comparisons being drawn between this extinction event and the fact that the Earth’s oceans have seen an increase in pH levels of 0.1 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

This is why, when discussing these latest findings, one of the authors of the research paper, Matthew Clarkson, a geochemist at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, said that this extinction event could be seen as a worse-case scenario for man-made climate change.

There still remains the mystery, however, over what contributed to the first of two extinction blows that preceded the volcanic eruptions in Siberia, and Clarkson admits it may be some time before they can figure out a definitive answer.

“We’ve still got quite a lot of work to do,” Clarkson said. “Everyone always wants the smoking gun for these things.”

Acid oceans image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic