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Australian Volcanoes Caused First Mass Extinction

Ancient volcanic eruptions in Australia 510 million years ago significantly affected the climate, causing the first known mass extinction in the history of complex life according to research published in Geology.

A/Prof Fred Jourdan from Curtin University’s Department of Applied Geology, along with colleagues from several Australian and international institutions, used radioactive dating techniques to precisely measure the age of the eruptions of the Kalkarindji volcanic province, where lavas covered an area of more than 2 million km2 in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The researchers found that the volcanic province was emplaced at the same time as the Early–Middle Cambrian extinction 510–511 million years ago – the first extinction to wipe out complex multicellular life.

“It has been well-documented that this extinction, which eradicated 50% of species, was related to climatic changes and depletion of oxygen in the oceans, but the exact mechanism causing these changes was not known until now,” Jourdan said. “Not only were we able to demonstrate that the Kalkarindji volcanic province was emplaced at the exact same time as the Cambrian extinction, but we were also able to measure a depletion of sulfur dioxide from the province’s volcanic rocks – which indicates sulfur was released into the atmosphere during the eruptions.

“As a modern comparison, when the small volcano Pinatubo erupted in 1991, the resulting discharge of sulfur dioxide decreased the average global temperatures by a few tenths of a degree for a few years following the eruption. If relatively small eruptions like Pinatubo can affect the climate just imagine what a volcanic province with an area equivalent to the size of the state of Western Australia can do.”

A comparison of the Kalkarindji and other volcanic provinces showed that the most likely process for all the mass extinctions was a rapid oscillation of the climate triggered by volcanic eruptions that emitted sulfur dioxide along with the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide.

“We calculated a near-perfect chronological correlation between large volcanic province eruptions, climate shifts and mass extinctions over the history of life during the last 550 million years, with only one chance over 20 billion that this correlation is just a coincidence,” Jourdan said.

Jourdan said the rapid oscillations of the climate produced by volcanic eruptions made it difficult for various species to adapt, ultimately resulting in their demise.