Permian–Triassic mass extinction pulses driven by major marine carbon cycle perturbations


The Permian/Triassic boundary approximately 251.9 million years ago marked the most severe environmental crisis identified in the geological record, which dictated the onwards course for the evolution of life. Magmatism from Siberian Traps is thought to have played an important role, but the causational trigger and its feedbacks are yet to be fully understood. Here we present a new boron-isotope-derived seawater pH record from fossil brachiopod shells deposited on the Tethys shelf that demonstrates a substantial decline in seawater pH coeval with the onset of the mass extinction in the latest Permian. Combined with carbon isotope data, our results are integrated in a geochemical model that resolves the carbon cycle dynamics as well as the ocean redox conditions and nitrogen isotope turnover. We find that the initial ocean acidification was intimately linked to a large pulse of carbon degassing from the Siberian sill intrusions. We unravel the consequences of the greenhouse effect on the marine environment, and show how elevated sea surface temperatures, export production and nutrient input driven by increased rates of chemical weathering gave rise to widespread deoxygenation and sporadic sulfide poisoning of the oceans in the earliest Triassic. Our findings enable us to assemble a consistent biogeochemical reconstruction of the mechanisms that resulted in the largest Phanerozoic mass extinction.

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Fig. 1: Brachiopod-based stable isotope data from Italy and China.
Fig. 2: Modelled marine carbonate system and climate change.
Fig. 3: Modelled redox state of the ocean, dissolved nutrient concentrations and nitrogen cycling.

Data availability

We have chosen not to deposit the data in a repository at this time, but all the geochemical data analysed during this study are accessible in the Supplementary Data file.

Code availability

Computer code is available upon reasonable request from K.W. (


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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 643084 (BASE-LiNE Earth). K.W. was supported by the HGF (ESM project) and S.F. by the DFG (SFB 754, subproject A7). L.A. and R.P. were supported by the MURST (PRIN 2017RX9XXXY, project ‘Biota resilience to global change: biomineralization of planktic and benthic calcifiers in the past, present and future’). We thank D. Nürnberg for help with the carbon and oxygen isotope analyses, and A. Kolevica and T. Goepfert for laboratory support (at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel). We are grateful to F. Couffignal and A. Rocholl for assistance with the SIMS analyses, U. Dittmann for sample preparation and I. Schäpan for scanning electron microscopy imaging (at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences—Helmholtz Centre Potsdam). Special thanks to A. Winguth (at the University of Texas Arlington) for providing us the model output.

Author information




H.J., M.G., V.L. and A.E. developed the concept and designed the study. H.J. carried out the chemical sample preparation, as well as elemental and isotopic analyses. M.W. provided isotopic microanalyses. U.B., R.P., L.A. and C.G. provided and screened the samples. R.P., L.A., C.G. and H.J. developed the age model. K.W. and S.F. devised the box model and performed the analyses. H.J. wrote the manuscript, and all the authors discussed the results, contributed to the interpretation of the data and to the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hana Jurikova.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Stable isotope and Element-to-Ca ratio cross-plots for PTB brachiopods.

Grey symbols show data from solution-based analyses of PTB brachiopods. Panel a additionally shows the Al/Ca and B/Ca composition of matrix (void cement) material (n = 3, ±2 s.d.) and modern brachiopods (n = 3, ±2 s.d.; based on measured values for Magellania venosa, Liothyrella neozelandica and Pajaudina atlantica) for comparison. Matrix is highly depleted in B/Ca, with variable Al/Ca. Recent brachiopods are highly variable in both B/Ca and Al/Ca. Elemental ranges (Sr, Mn, Mg and Fe) for modern brachiopods shown in panels g and h are based on data from ref. 57.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Criteria-based boron isotope record shown relative to carbon isotope excursion (CIE; in kyr).

a Boron isotope trends when solely based on samples with low Al/Ca ratios (Al/Ca <1000 μmol/mol); b boron isotope trends when solely based on one brachiopod class (Rhynchonellata) from one site (Southern Alps, northern Italy).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Boron isotope and pH record shown relative to carbon isotope excursion (CIE; in kyr).

Red dashed rectangle in panels b and d indicates the enlarged areas shown in a and c, respectively. Boron-derived pH values (c, d) are provided for each data point together with best fit model curve. Our preferred standard case scenario (in grey) is shown along with an alternative borate ion scenario (in blue) for comparison. Error bars for solution-based δ11B values indicate the analytical uncertainty (2 s.d. = 0.2 ‰) and for SIMS δ11B the s.d. between multiple ion spots measurements within a single sample (panels a, b). Error bars for pH are based on the given δ11B envelope.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Isotopic and model-based constraints on carbon cycle dynamics across the PTB.

a Carbon isotope composition of carbonates deposited on Tethys shelf; and b carbon isotope composition of organic carbon in sediments deposited on Panthalassa seafloor based on a comprehensive compilation of literature data (sources are provided in the Supplement) and as modelled; c δ11B-based and modelled surface ocean pH (standard case scenario); d resulting global atmospheric partial pressure CO2 projected by our carbon cycle model.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Our box model setup.

The global ocean is represented by 6 boxes: surface water (0–100 m water depth), intermediate water (100–1,300 m), and deep water (>1,300) for both, Tethys and Panthalassa oceans. Water fluxes across the box boundaries are given in Sv.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary discussion consisting of five sections (1–5) and integrated figures.

Supplementary Data

Containing geochemical data analysed during this study.

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Jurikova, H., Gutjahr, M., Wallmann, K. et al. Permian–Triassic mass extinction pulses driven by major marine carbon cycle perturbations. Nat. Geosci. 13, 745–750 (2020).

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