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A nutrient control on marine anoxia during the end-Permian mass extinction


Oxygen deprivation and hydrogen sulfide toxicity are considered potent kill mechanisms during the mass extinction just before the Permian–Triassic boundary (~251.9 million years ago). However, the mechanism that drove vast stretches of the ocean to an anoxic state is unclear. Here, we present palaeoredox and phosphorus speciation data for a marine bathymetric transect from Svalbard. This shows that, before the extinction, enhanced weathering driven by Siberian Traps volcanism increased the influx of phosphorus, thus enhancing marine primary productivity and oxygen depletion in proximal shelf settings. However, this non-sulfidic state efficiently sequestered phosphorus in the sediment in association with iron minerals, thus restricting the intensity and spatial extent of oxygen-depleted waters. The collapse of vegetation on land immediately before the marine extinction changed the relative weathering influx of iron and sulfate. The resulting transition to euxinic (sulfidic) conditions led to enhanced remobilization of bioavailable phosphorus, initiating a feedback that caused the spread of anoxic waters across large portions of the shelf. This reconciles a lag of >0.3 million years between the onset of enhanced weathering and the development of widespread, but geographically variable, ocean anoxia, with major implications for extinction selectivity.

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Fig. 1: Geographical setting of the Festningen section and Deltadalen core.
Fig. 2: Stratigraphic plot of δ13Corg, Fe speciation, Mo/U, Re/Mo and δ34Spy for the Festningen outcrop and Deltadalen core.
Fig. 3: Crossplots of Mo/U covariation.
Fig. 4: Stratigraphic distribution of Ptot/Al, Corg, Corg/Porg and Corg/Preac ratios.
Fig. 5: Conceptual model of the development of water-column redox conditions.

Data availability

P.B.W. ( and S.P. ( should be consulted for material requests of Festningen and Deltadalen, respectively. The raw and processed geochemical data that support the findings of this study are available under Zenodo:

Code availability

The R Markdown files to reproduce the data analysis as well as generate the accompanying data figures and the main and supplementary information texts can be found under Zenodo:


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M.S. was funded by a DFG Research Fellowship (SCHO 1689/1–1). S.W.P. acknowledges support from a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award and a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. D.P.G.B. acknowledges funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NE/J01799X/1) as do P.B.W. and R.J.N. (NE/P013724/1). H.H.S. and S.P. acknowledge support from the Norwegian Research Council by Centres of Excellence funding to CEED (project number 223272), and Lundin Petroleum, Arctic Drilling AS and Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani for funding, drilling and support related to the Deltadalen core.

Author information




The study was designed by M.S., R.J.N., P.B.W. and S.W.P. Samples were collected by V.Z., A.R.N.S., H.H.S., S.P., P.B.W. and D.P.G.B. Palaeontological data acquisition was performed by W.J.F., M.S., P.B.W. and D.P.G.B. Geochemical analyses were performed by M.S., F.M. and R.J.N. M.S. and S.W.P. interpreted data. M.S. led the writing of the manuscript with contributions from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to Martin Schobben.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–7; Tables 1–3; geological setting; lithostratigraphy and facies description; chronology; materials; data processing, statistics and visualization; methods; results and discussion.

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Schobben, M., Foster, W.J., Sleveland, A.R.N. et al. A nutrient control on marine anoxia during the end-Permian mass extinction. Nat. Geosci. 13, 640–646 (2020).

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