A new letter to my Mom on the Permian Triassic extinction event

NewImageby jurvetson

My mother asked me more about the Permian-Triassic extinction event. She wanted me to write some more about it. Here it what I wrote back, with some small editing choices. I purposely did little new reading – I’m writing my Mom after all – so it is very informal and I might have gotten some details wrong. Let me know if I did.



We are not at the end of our time on Earth because we will kill it. We are at the end of our time on Earth because we will save it and in the process leave it behind.


Once upon a time, over 250 million years ago, the Great Dying occurred. Those of us with a more syntactical mind call it the Permian-Triassic extinction event.

The Permian-Triassic extinction event happened something like 250 million years ago. It is not the one that killed the dinosaurs. That one was not nearly as bad as this one.

The Permian-Triassic was the greatest extinction event for both land and marine animals. It completely remade the entire world. It killed off most of the marine life because up to that point, the most common form of sea life was sessile – stuck in one place like coral or barnacles. So when the sea heated up, they could not move. The main ones that survived were small fish that were able to move to cooler waters up North or South.

Land animals generally were already mobile. In addition, the position of the continents were actually one great continent called Pangaea. This allowed land animals to easily move North and South. Many died off but enough survived.

Plants did not fair well. Many died off also. In fact, so few plants were left that this period has few coal deposits. Simply not enough plants to create them. So, naturally, herbivores were decimated, leaving little for the carnivores to eat.

Another thing that makes it hard to tell just what went on with land animals is that there are very few fossils from land animals from this period. Fossilization requires water – which is why we have marine fossils. No water, no fossils. Insect fossils do not reappear after this event for 15 million years!! Insects survive everything. 

The wikipedia article provides a lot of detail. 96% of all marine species and about 68% of the genera. Perhaps 70% of land animals died.

Part of the problem with describing the ’cause’ of this event is that there has not been a definitive single source, like an asteroid. It looks like a lot of things combined. What is apparent is that global temperatures rose tremendously.

There is some evidence of an asteroid strike. There were huge volcanic explosions. These have happened before without mass extinctions like this. But it also appears that the volcanic eruptions might have gone through large coal deposits,setting them on fire and releasing large amounts of CO2 into the air (something we are doing right now). This may have set off a cascade of events, including the release of large methane deposits (a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2) from the water and permafrost (something that is happening right now).

And it now appears that these events all happened in a very short time, geologically speaking. Less than a few 100,000 years. So, one possibility is that a large piece of rock hit the Earth, causing the sort of ecological damage seen in other extinction events. This one punched a hole in the Earth that released large amounts of magma. Again, something that might have happened before.

Unluckily for life on Earth, though, this time the volcanoes that erupted hit large deposits of coal – sequestered carbon – releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The Sun’s energy then started a greenhouse effect.

The air got warmer. The seas got hotter. The higher levels of CO2 that became dissolved in the water made it acidic. These hot, acidic waters resulted in lower oxygen levels and the deal of marine animals. The warm air temperatures killed land plants, then herbivores then carnivores.

And new feedback loops were created that sustained these high temperatures. For millions of years.

The cascade of these climate changes resulted in a new temperature regime – one that sustained much higher global temperatures. So it was not just the immediate extinction event that might have been triggered by the volcanoes through coal. The new climate cycle supported higher temperature. Fewer plants/animals meant less carbon was removed from the air and thus the higher levels stayed keeping the temperature high.And know this, most of the CO2 that is removed by the carbon cycle comes from marine life. Plankton use the co2 then drop to the bottom of the ocean, effectively removing the CO2 from the air.

No plankton and there will be little change to a high CO2 atmosphere.

That is what this paper showed. For 5 million years AFTER the extinction event, the waters remained very hot, keeping marine life from recovering. For every other extinction event in the Earth’s history life had well recovered 5 million years afterwards. But not this one.

Life on Earth has tremendous effects on the planet and its climate. It helps maintain the conditions for life. Pretty nice. 

But the events of the Permian-Triassic extinction event altered the planet’s climate, decimating all life. It took millions of years for life to recover enough to again control the climate and make it more amenable to life.

That is why this event – the Permian/Triassic extinction event – is the most worrisome. It is the one most likely caused by global climate changes, resulting in a much warmer world. It took the world, and its life, much longer to recover from this sort of global catastrophe than dealing with an asteroid collision.

Now think about this.

The Sun radiates much more energy now than it did back then. So, the same amount of global warming can be accomplished with much less greenhouse gas released to the atmosphere.

Instead of volcanoes burning coal deposits, we are doing the same. Not only is CO2 building up, but sequestered methane deposits are beginning to enter the atmosphere also.

We can fix this. We have the technology. But we do not know just how much time we have. Once the climate has flipped to a new regime, it is much, much harder to flip it back.

We are already seeing some of this – fossil fuel use is down in the US. We are burning methane rather than letting it be released.The Navy is working on creating fuel from seawater for perhaps $3-6 a gallon. We are not only using more and more green energy, we are on the cusp of utilizing huge amounts of solar energy from space-based solar. We can build these from the mining operations produced by companies like Planetary Resources. A single asteroid could do it all – for a total of $2.6 billion over a ten year period. $250 million a year could get us very close to what we need.

With increased access to energy, we can begin operations that sequester CO2, reversing our own production of it.

The very things that excite almost most of us regardless of political stripe – exploration of space – are the very things that can help save us.We already are moving in this direction but it is slow because the powerful do not want to easily give up their power – economic or otherwise.

We could be on our way for accomplishing this in less than a decade. It would only take things like doubling NASA’s budget – which would add 0.5% (0.5%!!!). How about taking just a little from defense in order to defend the world.

Economic pressures will eventually get us where we need to be. But we do not know just how much time we have so the sooner the better. I think that market incentives are better than market disincentives. So perhaps some government support of these technologies – to help them develop until they can effectively complete – might help. we are doing that with the support of the Navy project. Let’s do some more.

We can fix this. we have the tools. I said it once and I’ll say it again “Anyone whos says it is hopeless is a godforsaken quitter.

50 years ago, in a speech at Rice University, President Kennedy stated, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Willing to accept, unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win. Here is what I wrote and I still think it holds:

We must be very different Americans today than were there 48 years ago. Too many leaders make a call to inaction. Today many, even if they recognize the problems, simply say there is nothing we can do. We also have many who want to wait and rest and look behind them, refusing to come up with any plan to move forward except to say “It’s too hard”, “It’ll cost to much” or “No.”

Resting, waiting or looking behind us is a path to decay and loss of relevance. Not to mention a world substantially different than the one we currently inhabit.

These problems will have to be dealt with eventually and no amount of resting, waiting or looking behind us will change that. Americans used to believe that difficult problems could be and had to be solved, no matter the cost.

Not so much anymore. There are many Americans trying to solve these problems and perhaps they may still succeed. But their success will be hampered every step of the way by powerful interests that want to rest, wait and look back.

Which side are you on – finding solutions or quitting?

Our political leaders and the corporate elite won’t do this. They are too entrenched in power to make this leap that will solve the problem. They want to keep us divided, at each others throats, in order to keep their power.

We, the American people, need to do this. We need to shrug off the feeling of powerlessness that have cloaked us in. We need to find common cause to embrace our neighbor, not fall victim to the divisive rhetoric created to remove our power.

We can all come together on something we intuitively love – space, since as Bertrand Russell said, we are all astronauts – that also holds out the promise of reversing so much of the damage we have done.

And by solving the problems of climate change, we will find ourselves on a new path, one where we then have the ability to easily travel between planets, opening up a time of abundance never seen on Earth. Room to grow, room to explore, room to begin a new age.

The same things that will save the planet will also send mankind out into the solar system. We will have come full circle. The space program produced the computer revolution that produced the Information age that created the tools that will put us all into space.

It will happen anyway. Why not work to make it happen sooner?