it’s not the warming that kills you, it’s how fast the planet warms

As global temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, scientists are studying the Permian mass extinction for clues to our fate in a world warming out of control.

desert world

Here’s a grim thought to consider. Nearly all life that existed on Earth is dead or extinct. Many species succumbed to environmental changes through overspecialization and inbreeding, as evolution favors resilient generalists ready to go with the flow. Many others were simply a dead end, reproducing too slowly, or defenseless against newly evolved predators. But quite a few went out in mass extinction events which were a biological equivalents of pressing a reset button on the global ecosystem. We’ve had five of them, and some argue that we’re currently going through a sixth, one caused in no small part by our pollution.

The previous mass dying, the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction gave rise to our ancestors and wiped out nearly three fourths of all living things. And while that was definitely a nasty blow, the one before it was even worse. While estimates vary, the Permian extinction nearly turned the planet uninhabitable, killing up to 96% of all life in the ocean and more than 70% of organisms on land. Forests and anything larger than a frog almost vanished. It took at least seven million years for ecosystems to return to some semblance of normal and pave the way for dinosaurs to rule the world for the next 200 million or so orbits around the sun.

what caused the permian extinction?

Lately, there’s been a renewed interest in this Great Dying because its cause should be both familiar and alarming: global warming. More specifically, average global temperatures rose by 10° to 15° C, killing off marine food chains and promoting the growth of bacteria which suffocated life both on land and in the oceans by emitting hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs. If you were to travel to Earth at the end of the Permian, the air would reek of death and decay, beaches would be strewn with rotting corpses, and the sky would’ve turned a poisonous shade of green, according to paleontologist Peter Ward.

But there’s a catch. On paper, a rise in greenhouses gasses shouldn’t cause mass extinctions. For example, massive upticks in carbon dioxide happened dozens of times but mass extinctions both rarely followed, and if they did, greenhouse gases weren’t the sole cause. So why did the uptick at the end of the Permian cause so much death and have so many side-effects that triggered full blown collapses of entire ecosystems?

Just like it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop in the end, it’s not the warming that triggers mass extinctions, it’s how quickly the planet heats up. Roughly 251 million years go, the Siberian Traps, the massive volcanic features deep in that is currently Russia, began to erupt for millenia on end, belching greenhouses gasses into the air. This lowered oxygen levels in the then global ocean and acidified them, opening the door for aforementioned toxic bacteria which proceeded to snuff out countless creatures inhabiting the supercontinent of Pangea.

volcanism and coal fires: a bad combination

Even worse, the volcanism started burning underground coal and shale, adding even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, speeding up how quickly the planet warmed. Since it all happened so suddenly on a planetary scale — just a few hundred thousand years — life had virtually no chance to adapt. And that’s really the problem with global greenhouse gas emissions right now. We’re stressing the planet in similar ways that created a mass extinction in about 200,000 to 300,000 years but three orders of magnitude faster, if we consider emissions since the days of the Industrial Revolution and the first factories for mass production.

Life will have no chance to adapt as we run out of carbon sinks and cascading effects of warming begin to manifest themselves in less than a century. In effect, when we decide that we should postpone decisive action on global warming and its consequences out of deference to industry, we’re basically making a suicide pact so a small percentage of the population benefits from an abstract system of exchanging representations of debts that we call money and stock markets. If that sounds absolutely absurd when put this way, it’s because it is.

why we need to clean up our act, and soon

We only have one planet and while we’re more than a century behind on the technology that will be required to leave it if we trigger another Great Dying, we’ve got a nearly two century head start on making life on it a lot harder for current species, ourselves included. No matter what we do, the planet will still be there. But there might be a lot fewer of us, especially in nations that can’t handle the stress of desertification and famines, causing migration crises and even more political instability in the process.

And because we refuse to address these issues today not to inconvenience a few very wealthy people who’ll be long gone before we suffer the fallout from their actions, cleaning up after the mess they and their generously paid apologists made will be exponentially harder, and virtually certain to involve starvation, terrorism, war, and disease. We will already be paying for their all-consuming avarice and sociopathic solipsism for generations. Why allow them to make it worse for the sake of money that will ultimately mean very little if the economies they could fuel will collapse under conflict and starvation, especially when there are trillions to be made from going green and clean?

# science // climate change / global warming / mass extinction

  Show Comments