Toxic seas 'spurred' extinctions of dinosaurs and many other species
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Poisonous seawater probably may have driven two of the earth's best-known mass extinctions, say Penn State University researchers.
It is understood that an asteroid the size of Mt. Everest ended the reign of the dinosaurs when it struck Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago. The impact resulted firestorms, darkness and deadly gases that made trouble for life on land.
According to geochemist Lee Kump of Penn State University, something more was going on in the oceans, where 93 percent of nannoplankton—the base of the marine food web—went extinct.
Dust and smoke kicked up by the asteroid would have throttled photosynthesis for several months, but it took some 270,000 years for plankton populations to bounce back.
Even in the Northern Hemisphere, which suffered a direct hit, recovery should have been much faster. In 2010 Kump and some of his Penn State colleagues explained this lag by proposing that toxic metals from the asteroid contaminated the oceans.
When the super-heated debris from the disintegrating space rock hit the ocean, metals such as copper, chromium, aluminum, mercury and lead would have dissolved into the seawater at plankton-lethal levels, the team asserted. It wouldn't take trace metal concentrations higher than a few parts per billion to inhibit plankton recovery.
But Kump pointed out that errant asteroids aren't the only way to poison the oceans.
Earth is perfectly capable of concocting a toxic brew all on its own, he told the audience at his plenary talk Thursday at the 2012 Goldschmidt Conference in Montreal.
Kump thinks toxic seas were taking their toll at the end of the Permian period, about 250 million years ago. At that time, the planet suffered its Great Dying, the most extreme biological crisis yet known: 95 percent of all species were extinguished forever.
The poison that time around was hydrogen sulfide, a stinky gas toxic to plants and animals alike. And the underlying source of this massive dose of toxic gas, Kump said, was a prolonged episode of global warming. Here's the basic process:
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