Brutal cause of mass extinctions found giving humans clue about our own fate

Scientists have a new explanation as to how so many species went extinct hundreds of millions of years ago – and it could shed light on humanity's fate.

The planet experienced a series of devastating volcanic eruptions roughly 183 million years ago, causing the worst mass extinctions the world has ever seen and releasing greenhouse gasses into the air.

The deadly event, known as the Early Toarcian oceanic anoxic event (T-OAE), has confused scientists for years as they tried to figure out what caused the mass eruptions.

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However, an "as-yet unexplored" theory may at last offer an explanation, according to a study published in scientific publication Science Advances on Friday.

The team behind the theory believe the extinction event may have been caused by a slowdown in the movement of continents, which are constantly in motion.

The change in speed during the Jurassic era may have allowed time for underground magma to burst out onto the surface and create huge expanses of volcanic rock that can still be seen in Southern Africa and Antarctica today.

Not only that, but their theory also fits with the timing of several other major volcanic events throughout history.

"We started looking at other major volcanic events, because there have been quite a few in the past, and we observed that the same thing is happening for many of these volcanic events," said Micha Ruhl, an assistant professor in sedimentology at Trinity College Dublin who led the team who came up with the theory.

"So the model might be applicable to quite a large part of Earth’s history."

And the new theory could also help to predict the next mass-extinction event.

Continents today are shifting at a rate of several centimeters per year – considered relatively fast for the giant land masses.

They were also moving speedily millions of years before the T-OAE before they began to slow.

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And not only that, but the new findings could help us figure out what to expect as human-driven climate change means gasses such as carbon dioxide are pumped into our atmosphere in a relatively short time span, just like they were during periods of major volcanic activity millions of years ago.

So what does this mean for us? The new findings don't reveal an exact date for the demise of humanity, or even suggest that it's on the cards – but they could in future offer key insights into the impact we're having on our planet.

Ruhl said: "The relationship between volcanism and environmental and climatic perturbations is really important, because we know that volcanoes release large amounts of carbon and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

"Understanding that temporal link is really quite crucial because it allows us to say something about how much carbon is being released in the first place and what it meant in terms of degrees of temperature increase in ocean surface waters or degrees of reduction in pH, and so on."

"These kinds of studies allow us to understand how much carbon is being released and, more importantly, the timescale or the rates of carbon release per year, and what that means for the planet and the Earth system as a whole."

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