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Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction Event: Causes, Facts & End

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What was the worst mass extinction in history? In this lesson, we'll explore the event that made the death of the dinosaurs look like a minor setback and see how the Permian-Triassic Extinction impacted evolutionary history.

The Great Dying

Most people are familiar with the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. It was pretty bad, but actually not the worst mass extinction in history. That superlative goes to one that happened 185 million years earlier. Around 250 million years ago, right at the border between the Permian and Triassic periods, life nearly ended entirely.

The Permian-Triassic Extinction eliminated up to 96% of all species on Earth, and over 50% of all families of living things. In fact, geologists often refer to this event as ''the Great Dying''. This extinction hit plants, terrestrial animals, marine animals, and even bacteria so badly that it rewrote Earth's evolutionary history. Everything that has existed since the Permian-Triassic Extinction evolved from the 4% of species that survived. Who knows what the world would look like if 9/10 of life's gene pool hadn't been eliminated?

Permian life was complex and diverse, so what happened?
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Explaining the Permian-Triassic Extinction

What makes the Permian-Triassic Extinction particularly interesting is not just the loss of life, but the rate. Species go extinct. We know this, but it usually takes millions and millions of years. As our geologic dating techniques have become more advanced, geologists think that the entire Permian-Triassic extinction occurred in less than one million years. In fact, some believe that nearly all of life on Earth died out in less than a hundred thousand years, and some even believe it may be under ten thousand years. How could so many species die in so little time? Honestly, we don't know but there are some theories that have emerged.

Spanish chart showing the intensity of various extinctions in terms of loss of marine species. The PT Extinction is labeled Final P on this chart.
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Climate Change

Geologists have found evidence that the Permian period contained consistent global warming. If this happened dramatically enough, it could have shifted weather patterns, causing horrible storms in some places and massive droughts in others. We don't know why the global temperature increased, and geologists disagree on whether or not it had a major impact on the mass extinction, but it's worth noting.

Pangaea

A more popular theory is that the creation of Pangaea itself led to the mass extinction. Pangaea was a supercontinent formed in the Permian as landmasses were pushed together by tectonic activity. The theory is that the creation of this supercontinent eliminated inland seas that sustained terrestrial life. The joining of the continents also reduced the amount of near-shore marine habitats, disrupted normal currents and weather patterns, and could even have resulted in a depletion of oxygen in the ocean. In short, it took millions of years to form Pangaea, but once it existed, things changed rapidly and out of control.

Impact Theory

In 2001, Geologists with NASA discovered evidence of an asteroid impact at the end of the Permian period. While most evidence has been erased over the last 250 million years, researchers now believe that this space rock was about the size of Mount Everest when it collided with Earth. Still, relatively few geologists believe this actually caused mass extinction. It certainly wouldn't have helped, but likely wasn't the direct cause.

Volcanoes

While there is evidence suggesting that the late Permian suffered global warming, changes from Pangaea, and an asteroid impact, none of these theories are widely held as the dominant cause of the worst mass extinction in history. So, what could explain the Permian-Triassic Extinction? How about volcanoes- could that wipe out nearly all of life? Well, if it's the largest volcanic eruption in the planet's history, then it might just be possible.

250 million years ago, right at the Permian-Triassic boundary, are the remains of the Siberian Traps. The Siberian Traps were massive lava flows created by something called a plume eruption. Basically, magma from the planet's core breached the mantle and burnt its way to the surface, melting rocks and building pressure as it did. It finally reached the surface, exploding with hundreds of thousands of cubic kilometers of lava.

Part of the Siberian Traps in Russia
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This is incredibly rare, only happening eight times in the last 250 million years, but the result is a massive outpouring of magma in violent eruptions. The event that created the Siberian Traps lasted between 1 and 2 million years.

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