The Great Dying

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Current discussions of “greenhouse gasses” and “global warming” paint a bleak picture of the future—an overheated world with mass extinctions—but the truth be known, it has already happened once.

Originally thought to have occurred about 252 million years ago and covering a span of some 200,000 years, “The Great Dying” was a mass extinction and literal “hell on earth.”

More recently, it has been discovered that the event may have occurred much more rapidly than previously believed, perhaps within a span of only 20,000 years, which is quite drastic and immediate from a geologist’s point of view.

In abnormal quantities, methane and carbon dioxide levels from probable natural sources triggered deterioration of the Earth’s ecosystems. We now know it was most likely a great volcanic eruption in present-day Siberia that released huge amounts of these gasses into the air.

As the Earth’s atmosphere changed, a new cycle of weather patterns was initiated, characterized by rising temperatures—true global warming—which in turn caused ocean acidification, a drier climate and an increase in soil erosion.

Estimates put the overall temperature increase on the order of 9 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a global climate at least 15 degrees warmer than it is today and much too hot for many of that era’s life forms.

Back then, the Earth consisted of a single great land mass called Pangaea—an inferno of raging forest fires and volcanic eruptions. As the surrounding oceans grew hotter they created a virtual stew out of 95% of ocean life and turned 75% of all land creatures into dried up jerky. Even the sturdiest insects were reduced to ashes.

This extinction of mass proportions was long before today’s common forms of plants and animals had evolved. Life had to regenerate itself almost completely from scratch, and among the first creatures to emerge were reptile-like organisms that later evolved to the huge diversity of species we call dinosaurs.

Hard as it may be to imagine three quarters or more of a planet’s life forms obliterated so quickly, “The Great Dying” demonstrates all too clearly how lethal high concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane can be.

It also gives cause to take greater care concerning the unnatural levels of such gasses that humans now release into the atmosphere, not just from carbon-based fuel consumption, which is well documented, but from food production as well.

Take cows, for example. A single cow causes about 70 to 120 kilograms of methane pollution per year. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that agriculture is responsible for about 18% of the total release of greenhouse gasses worldwide, much of it from cattle.

Reduction in beef and dairy consumption could go a long way toward reducing such pollutants—a small step on a individual level, but it could make a huge difference if enough people knew and acted on it. After all, nobody wants to be responsible for a sequel to The Great Dying.

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Lex Cavemen

LEX is the scientist. He is obsessed with understanding why and how the world around him works the way it does.

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