Letter | Published:

Catastrophic dispersion of coal fly ash into oceans during the latest Permian extinction

Nature Geoscience volume 4, pages 104107 (2011) | Download Citation

Abstract

During the latest Permian extinction about 250 Myr ago, more than 90% of marine species went extinct, and biogeochemical cycles were disrupted globally1. The cause of the disruption is unclear, but a link between the eruption of the Siberian Trap flood basalts and the extinction has been suggested on the basis of the rough coincidence of the two events2,3. The flood basalt volcanism released CO2. In addition, related thermal metamorphism of Siberian coal measures and organic-rich shales led to the emission of methane, which would have affected global climate and carbon cycling, according to model simulations2,3,4,5,6. This scenario is supported by evidence for volcanic eruptions and gas release in the Siberian Tunguska Basin6, but direct indicators of coal combustion have not been detected. Here we present analyses of terrestrial carbon in marine sediments that suggest a substantial amount of char was deposited in Permian aged rocks from the Canadian High Arctic immediately before the mass extinction. Based on the geochemistry and petrology of the char, we propose that the char was derived from the combustion of Siberian coal and organic-rich sediments by flood basalts, which was then dispersed globally. The char is remarkably similar to modern coal fly ash, which can create toxic aquatic conditions when released as slurries. We therefore speculate that the global distribution of ash could have created toxic marine conditions.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    Extinction. How life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago296 (Princeton Univ. Press, 2006).

  2. 2.

    et al. The timing and extent of the eruption of the Siberian Traps large igneous province: Implications for the end-Permian environmental crisis. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 277, 9–20 (2009).

  3. 3.

    & The Siberian Traps and the end-Permian mass extinction: A critical review. Chin. Sci. Bull. 54, 20–37 (2009).

  4. 4.

    et al. Massive volcanism at the Permian–Triassic boundary and its impact on the isotopic composition of the ocean and atmosphere. J. Asian Earth Sci. 37, 293–311 (2010).

  5. 5.

    & Methane release from igneous intrusion of coal during Late Permian extinction events. J. Geol. 116, 1–20 (2008).

  6. 6.

    et al. Siberian gas venting and the end-Permian environmental crisis. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 277, 490–500 (2009).

  7. 7.

    et al. Late Permian sedimentation in the Sverdrup Basin, Canadian Arctic: The Lindström and Black Stripe formations. Can. Soc. Petrol. Geol. Bull. 57, 167–191 (2009).

  8. 8.

    & Intrabasin variability of the carbon-isotope record across the Permian–Triassic transition, Sverdrup Basin, Arctic Canada. Chem. Geol. 253, 141–150 (2008).

  9. 9.

    & Latest Permian to Early Triassic basin-to-shelf anoxia in the Sverdrup Basin, Arctic Canada. Chem. Geol. 264, 232–246 (2009).

  10. 10.

    & in The Sedimentary Basins of Unites States and Canada (ed. Miall, A. D.) 451–472 (Elsevier, 2008).

  11. 11.

    , & Permian–Triassic of the Tethys; Carbon isotope studies. Geol. Rundschau 78, 649–677 (1989).

  12. 12.

    & in Wetlands Through Time Vol. 399 (eds Greb, S. F. & DiMichele, W. A.) 249–268 (Spec. Pap. Geol. Soc. Am., 2006).

  13. 13.

    , , & Thermal maturity of Carboniferous and Permian rocks of the Sverdrup Basin, Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Geol. Sur. Can., Paper no. 89–19 (1989).

  14. 14.

    & Classification of carbon in Canadian fly ashes and their implications in the capture of mercury. Fuel 87, 1949–1957 (2008).

  15. 15.

    Melville Island’s salt-based fold belt, Arctic Canada Geol. Sur. Can., Bull. 472, (1995).

  16. 16.

    et al. Permian phytogeographic patterns and climate data/model comparisions. J. Geol. 110, 1–31 (2002).

  17. 17.

    & Volcanic Successions, Modern and Ancient (Chapman, 1987).

  18. 18.

    , , & in Preservation of Random Megascale Events on Mars and Earth: Influence on Geologic History Vol. 453 (eds Keszthelyi, M. G. & L. P., Chapman) 37–53 (Special Paper Geol. Soc. Am., 2009).

  19. 19.

    , & The variation of large-magnitude volcanic ash cloud formation with source latitude. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D21204 (2008).

  20. 20.

    et al. Changes in the global carbon cycle occured as two episodes during the Permina–Triassic crisis. Geology 35, 1083–1086 (2007).

  21. 21.

    et al. Photic zone euxinia during the Permian–Triassic superanoxic event. Science 307, 706–709 (2005).

  22. 22.

    et al. Pathways of thirty-seven trace elements through coal-fired power plant. Environ. Sci. Technol. 9, 973–979 (1975).

  23. 23.

    Escaping radioactivity from coal-fired power plants (CPPs) due to coal burning and the associated hazards: A review. J. Environ. Radioact. 101, 191–200 (2010).

  24. 24.

    & Fossil fuel combustion and the major sedimentary cycle. Science 173, 233–235 (1971).

  25. 25.

    , & Ecotoxicological implications of aquatic disposal of coal combustion residues in the United States: A review. Environ. Monit. Assess. 80, 207–276 (2002).

  26. 26.

    , , , & Two episodes of microbial change coupled with Permo/Triassic faunal mass extinction. Nature 434, 494–497 (2005).

  27. 27.

    , , , & Ocean stagnation and end-Permian anoxia. Geology 29, 7–10 (2001).

  28. 28.

    et al. Pattern of marine mass extinction near the Permian–Triassic boundary in south China. Science 289, 432–436 (2000).

  29. 29.

    , , , & Rapid and synchrous collapse of marine and terrestrial ecosystems during the end-Permian biotic crisis. Geology 29, 351–354 (2001).

  30. 30.

    & Contrasting deep-water records from the Upper Permian and Lower Triassic of South Tibet and British Columbia; evidence for a diachronous mass extinction. Palaios 18, 153–167 (2003).

Download references

Acknowledgements

L. Stasiuk and J. Potter provided valuable scientific input. Helpful comments from Norm Sleep are appreciated. Geological Survey of Canada GCS Contribution 20100284.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Geological Survey of Canada—Calgary, 3303 33rd Street N.W., Calgary Alberta, T2L 2A7, Canada

    • Stephen E. Grasby
    •  & Hamed Sanei
  2. Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary, 2500 University Dr. N.W., Calgary Alberta, T2N 1N4, Canada

    • Benoit Beauchamp

Authors

  1. Search for Stephen E. Grasby in:

  2. Search for Hamed Sanei in:

  3. Search for Benoit Beauchamp in:

Contributions

S.E.G. collected field samples and conducted geochemical analyses, H.S. performed organic petrography, B.B. provided regional stratigraphic context.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephen E. Grasby.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1069

Further reading