Giant salt lakes could have triggered off largest mass extinction in history

March 31st, 2009 - 1:37 pm ICT by ANI  

Berlin, March 31 (ANI): An international team of scientists has suggested that the largest known mass extinction in the history of the earth could have been triggered off by giant salt lakes, whose emissions of halogenated gases changed the atmospheric composition so dramatically that vegetation was irretrievably damaged.

At the Permian/Triassic boundary, 250 million years, ago about 90 percent of the animal and plant species ashore became extinct.

Previously, it was thought that volcanic eruptions, the impacts of asteroids, or methane hydrate were instigating causes.

The new theory is based on a comparison with today’s biochemical and atmospheric chemical processes.

“Our calculations show that airborne pollutants from giant salt lakes like the Zechstein Sea must have had catastrophic effects at that time,” said co-author Dr. Ludwig Weibflog from the Helmholtz-Center for Environmental Research (UFZ).

The team of researchers from Russia, Austria, South Africa and Germany investigated whether a process that has been taking place since primordial times on earth could have led to global mass extinctions, particularly at the end of the Permian.

The starting point for this theory was their discovery in the south of Russia and South Africa that microbial processes in present-day salt lakes naturally produce and emit highly volatile halocarbons such as chloroform, trichloroethene, and tetrachloroethene.

They transcribed these findings to the Zechstein Sea, which about 250 million years ago in the Permian Age, was situated about where present day Central Europe is.

Based on comparable calculations from halogenated gas emissions in the atmosphere from present-day salt seas in the south of Russia, the scientists calculated that from the Zechstein Sea alone an annual VHC emissions rate of at least 1.3 million tonnes of trichloroethene, 1.3 million tonnes of tetrachloroethene, 1.1 million tonnes of chloroform as well as 0.050 million tonnes of methyl chloroform can be assumed.

“Using steppe plant species we were able to prove that halogenated gases contribute to speeding up desertification: The combination of stress induced by dryness and the simultaneous chemical stressor ‘halogenated hydrocarbons’ disproportionately damages and destabilize the plants and speeds up the process of erosion,” Dr. Karsten Kotte from the University of Heidelberg explained.

Based on both of these findings the researchers were able to form their new hypothesis.

At the end of the Permian Age, the emissions of halogenated gases from the Zechstein Sea and other salt seas were responsible in a complex chain of events for the world’s largest mass extinction in the history of the earth, in which about 90 percent of the animal and plant species of that time became extinct. (ANI)

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