Category Archives: Climate change and palaeoclimatology

Volcanism and the Justinian Plague

Between 541 and 543 CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian, bubonic plague spread through countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. This was a decade after Justinian’s forces had had begun to restore the Roman Empire’s lost territory in North Africa, Spain, Italy and the present-day Balkans by expeditions out of Byzantium (the Eastern Empire). At its height, the Plague of Justinian, was killing 5000 people each day in Constantinople, eventually to consume 20 to 40% of its population and between 25 to 50 million people across the empire. Like the European Black Death of the middle 14th century. The bacterium Yersinia pestis originated in Central Asia and is carried in the gut of fleas that live on rats. The ‘traditional’ explanation of both plagues was that plague spread westwards along the Silk Road and then with black rats that infested ship-borne grain cargoes. Plausible as that might seem, Yersinia pestis, fleas and rats have always existed and remain present to this day. Trade along the same routes continued unbroken for more than two millennia. Although plagues with the same agents recurred regularly, only the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death resulted in tens of million deaths over short periods. Some other factor seems likely to have boosted fatalities to such levels.


Monk administering the last rites to victims of the Plague of Justinian

Five years before plague struck the Byzantine historian Procopius recorded a long period of fog and haze that continually reduced sunlight; typical features of volcanic aerosol veils. Following this was the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, as recorded by tree-ring studies. It coincides with documentary evidence of famine in China, Ireland, the Middle East and Scandinavia.. A 72 m long ice core extracted from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss Alps in 2013 records the last two millennia of local climatic change and global atmospheric dust levels. Sampled by laser slicing, the core has yielded a time series of data at a resolution of months or better. In 536 an Icelandic volcano emitted ash and probably sulfur dioxide over 18 months during which summer temperature fell by about 2°C. A second eruption followed in 540 to 541. ‘Volcanic winter’ conditions lasted from 536 to 545, amplifying the evidence from tree-ring data from the 1990’s.

The Plague of Justinian coincided with the second ‘volcanic winter’ after several years of regional famine. This scenario is paralleled by the better documented Great Famine of 1315-17 that ended the two centuries of economic prosperity during the 11th to 13th centuries. The period was marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death, and even cannibalism and infanticide. In a population weakened through malnutrition to an extent that we can barely imagine in modern Europe, any pandemic disease would have resulted in the most affected dying in millions. Another parallel with the Plague of Justinian is that it followed the ending of four centuries of the Medieval Warm Period, during which vast quantities of land were successfully brought under the plough and the European population had tripled. That ended with a succession of major, sulfur-rich volcanic eruption in Indonesia at the end of the 13th century that heralded the Little Ice Age. Although geologists generally concern themselves with the social and economic consequences of a volcano’s lava and ash in its immediate vicinity– the ‘Pompeii view’ – its potential for global catastrophe is far greater in the case of really large (and often remote) events.

Chemical data from the same ice core reveals the broad economic consequences of the mid-sixth century plague. Lead concentrations in the ice, deposited as airborne pollution from smelting of lead sulfide ore to obtain silver bullion, fell and remained at low levels for a century. The recovery of silver production for coinage is marked by a spike in glacial lead concentration in 640; another parallel with the Black Death, which was followed by a collapse in silver production, albeit only for 4 to 5 years.

Related article: Gibbons, A. 2018. Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’. Science, v. 362,p. 733-734; DOI:10.1126/science.aaw0632

Subglacial impact structure: trigger for Younger Dryas?

Radar microwaves are able to penetrate easily through several kilometres of ice. Using the arrival times of radar pulses reflected by the bedrock at glacial floor allows ice depth to be computed. When deployed along a network of flight lines during aerial surveys the radar returns of large areas can be converted to a grid of cells thereby producing an image of depth: the inverse of a digital elevation model. This is the only means of precisely mapping the thickness variations of an icecap, such as those that blanket Antarctica and Greenland. The topography of the subglacial surface gives an idea of how ice moves, the paths taken by liquid water at its base, and whether or not global warming may result in ice surges in parts of the icecap. The data can also reveal topographic and geological features hidden by the ice (see The Grand Greenland Canyon September 2013).


Colour-coded subglacial topography from radar sounding over the Hiawatha Glacier of NW Greenland (Credit: Kjaer et al. 2018; Fig. 1D)

Such a survey over the Hiawatha Glacier of NW Greenland has showed up something most peculiar (Kjaer, K.H. and 21 others 2018. A large impact crater beneath Hiawatha Glacier in northwest Greenland. Science Advances, v. 4, eaar8173; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar8173). Part of the ice margin is an arc, which suggests the local bed topography takes the form of a 31km wide, circular depression. The exposed geology shows no sign of a structural control for such a basin, and is complex metamorphic basement of Palaeoproterozoic age. Measurements of ice-flow speeds are also anomalous, with an array of higher speeds suggesting accelerated flow across the depression. The radar image data confirm the presence of a subglacial basin, but one with an elevated rim and a central series of small peaks. These are characteristic of an impact structure that has only been eroded slightly; i.e. a fairly recent one and one of the twenty-five largest impact craters on Earth.. Detailed analysis of raw radar data in the form of profiles through the ice reveals  that the upper part is finely layered and undisturbed. The layering continues into the ice surrounding the basin and is probably of Holocene age (<11.7 ka), based on dating of ice in cores through the surrounding icecap. The lower third is structurally complex and shows evidence for rocky debris. Sediment deposited by subglacial streams where they emerge along the arcuate rim contain grains of shocked quartz and glass, as well as expected minerals from the crystalline basement rocks. Some of the shocked material contains unusually high concentrations of transition-group metals, platinum-group elements and gold; further evidence for impact of extraterrestrial material – probably an iron asteroid that was originally more than 1 km in diameter. The famous Cape York iron meteorite, which weighs 31 t – worked by local Innuit to forge harpoon blades – fell in NW Greenland about 200 km away.

The central issue is not that Hiawatha Glacier conceals a large impact crater, but its age. It certainly predates the start of the Holocene and is no older than the start of Greenland glaciation about 2.6 Ma ago. That only Holocene ice layers are preserved above the disrupted ice that rests immediately on top of the crater raises once again the much-disputed possibility of an asteroid impact having triggered the Younger Dryas cooling event and associated extinctions of large mammals in North America at about 12.9 ka (see Impact cause for Younger Dryas draws flak May 2008). Only radiometric dating of the glassy material found in the glaciofluvial sediments will be able to resolve that particular controversy.

Snowball Earth: A result of global tectonic change?

The Snowball Earth hypothesis first arose when Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson (1882-1958)speculated towards the end of his career on an episode of global glaciations, based on his recognition in South Australia of thick Neoproterozoic glacial sediments. Further discoveries on every continent, together with precise dating and palaeomagnetic indications of the latitude at which they were laid down, have steadily concretised Mawson’s musings. It is now generally accepted that frigid conditions enveloped the globe at least twice – the Sturtian (~715 to 660 Ma) and Marinoan (650 to 635 Ma) glacial episodes – and perhaps more often during the Neoproterozoic Era. Such an astonishing idea has spurred intensive studies of geochemistry associated with the events, which showed rapid variations in carbon isotopes in ancient seawater, linked to the terrestrial carbon cycle that involves both life- and Earth processes. Strontium isotopes suggest that the Neoproterozoic launched erratic variation of continental erosion and weathering and related carbon sequestration that underpinned major climate changes in the succeeding Phanerozoic Eon. Increased marine phosphorus deposition and a change in sulfur isotopes indicate substantial change in the role of oxygen in seawater. The preceding part of the Proterozoic Eon is relatively featureless in most respects and is known to some geoscientists as the ‘Boring Billion’.


Artist’s impression of the glacial maximum of a Snowball Earth event (Source: NASA)

Noted tectonician Robert Stern and his colleague Nathan Miller, both of the University of Texas, USA, have produced a well- argued and -documented case (and probably cause for controversy) that suggests a fundamental change in the way the Precambrian Earth worked at the outset of the Neoproterozoic (Stern, R.J. & Miller, N.R. 2018. Did the transition to plate tectonics cause Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth. Terra Nova, v. 30, p. 87-94). To the geochemical and climatic changes they have added evidence from a host of upheavals in tectonics. Ophiolites and high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphic rocks, including those produced deep in the mantle, are direct indicators of plate tectonics and subduction. Both make their first, uncontested appearance in the Neoproterozoic. Stern and Miller ask the obvious question; Was this the start of plate tectonics? Most geologists would put this back to at least the end of the Archaean Eon (2,500 Ma) and some much earlier, hence the likelihood of some dispute with their views.

They consider the quiescent billion years (1,800 to 800 Ma) before all this upheaval to be evidence of a period of stagnant ‘lid tectonics’, despite the Rodinia supercontinent having been assembled in the latter part of the ‘Boring Billion’, although little convincing evidence has emerged to suggest it was an entity formed by plate tectonics driven by subduction. But how could the onset of subduction-driven tectonics have triggered Snowball Earth? An early explanation was that the Earth’s spin axis was much more tilted in the Neoproterozoic than it is at present (~23°). High obliquity could lead to extreme variability of seasons, particularly in the tropics. A major shift in axial tilt requires a redistribution of mass within a planetary body, leading to true polar wander, as opposed to the apparent polar wander that results from continental drift. There is evidence for such an episode around the time of Rodinia break-up at 800 Ma that others have suggested stemmed from the formation of a mantle superplume beneath the supercontinent.

Considering seventeen possible geodynamic, oceanographic and biotic causes that have been plausibly suggested for global glaciation Stern and Miller link all but one to a Neoproterozoic transition from lid- to plate tectonics. Readers may wish to examine the authors’ reasoning to make up their own minds –  their paper is available for free download as a PDF from the publishers.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

The Great Barrier Reef and the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)

The 2,300 km stretch of coral reefs and islands in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia is the largest single structure on Earth built by living organisms. The dominant reef builders are four hundred species of coral, most of which are a symbiosis that conjoins marine invertebrates in the class Anthozoa – part of the phylum Cnidaria – and photosynthesising single-celled eukaryotes known as dinoflagellates. These algae are mainly free-living marine plankton, some species of which evolved to be co-opted by corals. Their role in the symbiosis is complex; on the one hand providing energy in the form of sugars, glycerol and amino acids; on the other consuming the coral polyps’ carbon dioxide output. The latter is fixed, in the case of hard corals, by the secretion of calcium carbonate: the key to reef formation.

Marine photosynthesisers demand clear water in the upper few tens of metres of the sea, together with sunlight least affected by the atmosphere, as in the tropics where the sun rises to the zenith year round. The coral animal-algae connection limits reef growth to shallow seas, the top of the reef being close to mean sea level, sometimes rising above it at low tide. Hence the formation of fringing and barrier reefs. In the case of atoll reefs, a connection with sea-floor volcanoes that rose from hotspots on the oceanic abyssal plains to form active volcanic islands that began to sink once they became extinct. The pace at which reefs can grow is generally able to match that of crustal subsidence so that atolls remain throughout the Western Pacific. Reef growth is also capable of coping with global sea-level changes, so that the present top level of the Great Barrier Reef has been in balance with the generally static sea level of the Holocene since the ice caps of the last glaciation melted back to roughly their present extent about seven thousand years ago.

There are many cases of different reef levels on and around islands that match the sea-level fluctuations during the last Ice Age.  High-resolution bathymetry produced by multi-beam sonar across the eastern edge of parts of the Great Barrier Reef reveals a series of submerged terraces down to almost 120 m below modern sea-level (Yokoyama, Y. and 17 others 2018. Rapid glaciation and a two-step sea level plunge in the Last Glacial Maximum. Nature, v. 559, p. 603-607; doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0335-4). Globally, the LGM began at around 31 ka when sea level fell by about 40 metres, thanks to massive accumulation of glacial ice at high latitudes. Previous studies to chart the changes in global mean sea level during the LGM suggested a steady fall until about 20 ka, followed by rapid rise as ice caps melted back. The multinational team led by Yusuke Yokoyama of the University of Tokyo, obtained precise ages of coral samples from different depths in drill cores through the coral terraces. These data revealed a more complex pattern of sea-level change, in particular a hitherto unsuspected plunge between 21.9 and 20.5 ka of 20 m to reach -118 m. This immediately preceded the warming-related rise that continued to Holocene levels.

GBR Bathymetry

High-resolution sonar images of the sea floor at two sites on the eastern edge of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. They show terraces associated with, the lowest of which corresponds to the Last Glacial Maximum. (Credit: Yokoyama et al. 2018, Figure 1)

Curiously, this massive phenomenon is not shown by sea-level estimates derived from the records of changing oxygen isotopes in ocean-floor sediments and ice cores. The team’s complex modelling incorporated global changes in land and sea-bed levels, and thus changes in the volume of the ocean basins, due to the changing isostatic effects of both ice-cap and ocean masses. From these it is possible to reach an interesting conclusion (Whitehouse, P. 2018. Ancient ice sheet had a growth spurt. Nature, v. 603, p. 487-488; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05760-3). Rather than an increase in snowfall onto ice-caps, their retreat may have been hindered by thickening of marginal floating ice shelves that created buttresses around Antarctica and the northern ice sheets. Slowed glacial flow to the oceans could have promoted ice sheet growth for a time as melting of calved icebergs was hindered, especially in the case of the ice sheet over northern North America. Certainly, this crucial climatic turning point was a lot more complex than previously believed.

Sea-level rise following a Snowball Earth

The Cryogenian Period (850 to 635 Ma) of the Neoproterozoic is named for the intense glacial episodes recorded in strata of that age. There were two that palaeomagnetism  in glaciogenic sedimentary rocks indicates that ice covered all of the continents including those in the tropics, and a third, less extreme one. These episodes, when documented in the 1990s, became dubbed, aptly enough, as ‘Snowball Earth’ events. But evidence for frigidity does not pervade the entire Cryogenian, the glacial events being separated by long periods with no sign anywhere of tillites or glaciomarine diamictites shed by floating ice. Each Snowball Earth episode is everywhere overlain by thick carbonate deposits indicating clear, shallow seas and a massive supply of calcium and magnesium ions to seawater. The geochemical change is a clear indicator of intense chemical weathering of the exposed continents. The combination of Ca and Mg with carbonate ions likewise suggests an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide. For frigidity episodically to have pervaded the entire planet indicates a distinct dearth of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere during those events. The likely explanation for Snowball Earths is one of booms in the abundance of minute marine organisms, perhaps a consequence of the high phosphorus levels in the oceans during the Neoproterozoic when seawater was alkaline. The carbon-isotope record suggests that there were periodic, massive bursts of organic matter that would have drawn down atmospheric CO2, which coincide with the evidence for global frigidity, although marine life continued to flourish.

Artist’s impression of the glacial maximum of a Snowball Earth event (Source: NASA)

Under such ice-bound conditions the build-up of continental glaciers would have resulted in huge falls in global sea level, far exceeding the 150 m recorded during some late-Pleistocene glacial maxima. The end of each Snowball Earth would have led to equally dramatic rises and continental flooding. Such scenarios are well accepted to have occurred when accumulation of volcanic CO2 during full ice cover reached a threshold of global warming potential that could overcome the reflection of solar radiation by the high albedo of ice extending to the tropics. That threshold has been estimated to have been between 400 to 500 times the CO2 content of the atmosphere at present. Yet it has taken an intricate analysis of sedimentary structures that are commonplace in marine sediments of any age – ripple marks – to quantify the pace of sea-level rise at the end of a Snowball Earth event (Myrow, P.M. et al. 2018. Rapid sea level rise in the aftermath of a Neoproterozoic snowball Earth. Science, v. 360, p. 649-651; doi:10.1126/science.aap8612).

The Elatina Formation of South Australia, deposited during the Marinoan (~635 Ma) glaciation, is famous for the intricacy of its sedimentary structures especially in the clastic sedimentary rocks beneath the cap carbonate that marks the end of glacial conditions. Among them are laminated silts and fine sands that were originally thought to be the equivalent of modern varved sediments that form annually as lakes or shallow seas freeze over and then melt with the seasons. Since they contain ripple marks the laminates of the Elatina Formation clearly formed as a result of current flow and wave action – the sea surface was therefore ice free while these sediments accumulated. Careful study of the larger ripples, which are asymmetrical, shows that current-flow directions periodically reversed, suggesting that they formed as a result of tidal flows during the bi-monthly cycle of spring and neap tides in marine deltas. Data from experiments in wave tanks shows that the shapes (expressed as their amplitude to wavelength ratio) of wave ripples depend on the orbital motion of water waves at different depths. The smaller ripples are of this kind. So Myrow and colleagues have been able to tease out a time sequence from the tidal ripples and also signs of any variation in the water depth at which the smaller wave ripples formed.

Ripples on a bedding surface in the Elatina Formation, South Australia. They formed under the influence of tidal current flow. (Credit, University of Guelph,

Just over 9 metres of the tidal laminate sequence that escaped any erosion was deposited in about 60 years, giving a sedimentation rate of 27 cm per year. This is extremely high by comparison with those in any modern marine basins, probably reflecting the sediment-charged waters during a period of massive glacial melting. Throughout the full 27 m sequence smaller, wave ripples consistently show that water depth remained between 9 to 16 m for about a century. Over such a short time interval any tectonic subsidence or sag due to sediment load would have been minuscule. So sea-level rise kept pace with deposition; i.e. at the same rate of 27 cm per year. That is at least five times faster than during any of the Pleistocene deglaciations and about a hundred times faster than sea-level rise today that is caused by melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps and thermal expansion of ocean water due to global warming. It has been estimated that the Marinoan ice sheets lowered global sea level by between 1.0 to 1.5 km – ten times more than in the last Ice Age – so deglaciation to the conditions of the cap carbonates, shallow, clear seas at around 50°C, would have taken about 6,000 years at the measured rate.

To read more on the Snowball Earth hypothesis and other early glacial epochs click here

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Late Palaeozoic glacial features in Chad

The longest and most extreme glacial epoch during the Phanerozoic took place between 360 and 260 Ma ago, when it dominated the Carboniferous and Permian sedimentary sequences across the planet. On continents that lay athwart the Equator during these times, sedimentation was characterised by cycles between shallow marine and terrestrial conditions. These are epitomised by the recurring ‘Coal-Measure’ cyclothem of, from bottom to top: open-sea limestone; near-shore marine mudstone; riverine sandstone; coal formed in swamps. This sequence represents a rapid rise in sea level as ice sheets melted, sustained during an interglacial episode and then falling sea level as ice once again accumulated on land to culminate in a glacial maximum when coal formed in coastal mires. During the Late Palaeozoic Era a single supercontinent extended from pole to pole. The break-up of Pangaea was charted by Alfred Wegener in 1912, partly by his using glacial deposits and ice-gouged striations on the southern continents. With the present widely separated configuration of major landmasses glacial sediments and the directions of inferred ice movements could only be reconciled by reassembling Africa, India, South America, Antarctica and Australia in the form of a single, congruent southern continent that he called Gondwanaland. In Wegener’s reconstruction the glacial features massed together on Gondwanaland with the striations radiating outwards from what would then have been the centre of a huge ice cap.

There are many localities on the present southern continents where such striations can be seen on the surface of peneplains etched into older rocks that underlie Carboniferous to Permian tillites, but later erosion has removed the continuity of the original glacial landscape. There are, however, some parts of central Africa where it is preserved. By using the high-resolution satellite images (with pixels as small as 1 m square) that are mosaiced together in Google Earth, Daniel Paul Le Heron of Royal Holloway, University of London has revealed a series of 1 to 12 km wide sinuous belts in a 6000 km2 area of eastern Chad that are superimposed unconformably on pre-Carboniferous strata (Le Heron, D.P. 2018. An exhumed Paleozoic glacial landscape in Chad. Geology, v.46(1), p. 91-94; doi:10.1130/G39510.1). They comprise irregular tracts of sandstone to the south of a major Carboniferous sedimentary basin. Zooming in to them (try using 17.5° N 22.25°E as a search term in Google Earth) reveals surfaces dominated by wavy, roughly parallel lines. Le Heron interprets these as mega-scale glacial lineations, formed by ice flow across underlying soft Carboniferous glacial sediments as seen in modern glacial till landforms in Canada. In places they rest unconformably on older rocks, sometimes standing above the level of the sandstone plateaux as relics of what may have been nunataks. There are even signs of elliptical drumlins.

An oblique Google Earth view looking to the south-east shows mega-scale glacial lineations from a glacial flow way in eastern Chad. The lower-right quadrant shows the unconformity atop older bedded strata that are dipping to the west. Click on the image to see a full resolution view. (Credit: Google Earth)

Glacial tillites and glaciofluvial sediments of Late Palaeozoic age are common across the Sahara and in the Sahelian belt, but in areas as remote as those in eastern Chad. So a systematic survey using the resolving power of Google Earth may well yield yet more examples. It is tedious work in such vast areas, unless, of course, one bears in mind Alfred Wegener, the founder of the hypothesis of continental drift and ‘Big’ Earth Science as a whole, who would have been gleeful at the opportunity.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

The winter of dinosaurs’ discontent

Under the auspices of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), during April and May 2016 a large team of scientists and engineers sank a 1.3 km deep drill hole into the offshore, central part of the Chicxulub impact crater, which coincided with the K-Pg mass extinction event. Over the last year work has been underway to analyse the core samples aimed at investigating every aspect of the impact and its effects. Most of the data is yet to emerge, but the team has published the results of advanced modelling of the amount of climate-affecting gases and dusts that may have been ejected (Artemieva, N. et al. 2017. Quantifying the release of climate-active gases by large meteorite imp-acts with a case study of Chicxulub. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 44; DOI: 10.1002/2017GL074879).  . From petroleum exploration in the Gulf of Mexico the impact site is known to have been underlain by about 2.5 to 3.5 km of Mesozoic sediments that include substantial amounts of limestones and evaporitic anhydrite (CaSO4) – thicknesses of each are of the order of a kilometre. The impact would inevitably have yielded huge volumes of carbon- and sulfur dioxide gases, as well as water vapour plus solid and molten ejecta. The first, of course, is a critical greenhouse gas, whereas SO2 would form sulfuric acid aerosols if it entered the stratosphere. They are known to block incoming solar radiation. So both warming and cooling influences would have been initiated by the impact. Dust-sized ejecta that lingered in the atmosphere would also have had climatic cooling effects. The questions that the study aimed to answer concerns the relative masses of each gas that would have reached more than 25 km above the Earth to have long-term, global climatic effects and whether the dominant effect on climate was warming or cooling. Both gases would have added the environmental effects of making seawater more acid.


3-D simulation of the Chicxulub crater based on gravity data (credit: Wikipedia)

Such estimates depend on a large number of factors beyond the potential mass of carbonate and sulfate source rocks. For instance: how big the asteroid was; how fast it was travelling and the angle at which it struck the Earth’s surface determine the kinetic energy involved and the impact mechanism. How that energy was distributed between atmosphere, seawater and the sedimentary sequence, together with the pressure-temperature conditions for the dissociation of calcite and anhydrite all need to be accounted for by modelling. Moreover, the computation itself becomes extremely long beyond estimates for the first second or so of the impact. Earlier estimates had been limited by computer speeds to only the first few seconds of the impact and could not allow for other than vertical impacts. The new study, by supercomputers and improved algorithms, used a likely 60° angle of impact, new data on mineral decomposition and simulated the first 15 to 30 seconds. The results suggested that 325 ± 130 Gt of sulfur and 425 ± 160 Gt CO2 were ejected, compared with earlier estimates of 40-560 Gt of sulfur and 350-3,500 Gt of CO2.  The greater proportion of sulfur release to the stratosphere pushes the model decisively towards global cooling, probably over a lengthy period – perhaps centuries. Taking dusts into account implies that visible sunlight would also have been blocked, devastating the photosynthetic base of the global food chain, in the sunlit parts of oceans as well as on land.

But we have to remember that these are the results of a theoretical model. In the same manner as this study has thrown earlier modeling into doubt, more data – and there will be a great many from the Chicxulub drill core itself – and more sophisticated computations may change the story significantly. Also, the other candidate for the mass extinction event, the flood basalt volcanism of the Deccan Traps, and its geochemical effects on the climate have yet to be factored in. The next few lines of Shakespeare’s soliloquy for  Richard III may well emerge from future work

… Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried …

See also: BBC News comment on 31 October 201


Volcanism and sea level fall

Most volcanic activity stems from the rise of hot, deep rock, usually within the mantle. Pressure suppresses partial melting, so as hot rock rises the greater the chance that it will begin to melt without any rise in its temperature. That is the reason why mantle plumes are associated with many volcanic centres within plates. Extension at oceanic ridges allows upper mantle to rise in linear belts below rift systems giving rise to shallow partial melting, mid-ocean ridge basalts and sea-floor spreading. These aren’t the only processes that can reduce pressure to induce such decompression melting; any means of uplift will do, provided the rate of uplift exceeds the rate of cooling at depth. As well as tectonic uplift and erosion, melting of thick ice sheets and major falls in sea level may result in unloading of the lithosphere.

During Messinian Stage of the late Miocene up to 3 km of evaporitic salt was deposited in the deepest parts of the Mediterranean Basin. One mechanism might have been faster evaporation of seawater than its resupply from the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar, similar to the way in which salts is deposited below the Dead Sea. But the salt layer beneath the modern Mediterranean Sea bed has interleaved riverine sediments containing fossils of land plants. The Straits had closed and the Mediterranean Sea evaporated away. From about 6 to 5.3 Ma ago sea level fell by 3 to 5 km, only returning to normal when the Straits reopened to launch the huge Zanclean flood, with which the Pliocene of southern Europe and North Africa commenced. A team from the Universities of Geneva, Orleans and Paris and the Instituto de Ciencias de la Tierra Jaume Almera in Barcelona has tested the hypothesis that the Messinian Crisis affected volcanic activity in the area (Sternai, P. et al. 2017. Magmatic pulse driven by sea-level changes associated with the Messinian salinity crisis. Nature Geoscience, v. 10 online; doi:10.1038/ngeo3032).

From the record of salt precipitation, Pietro Sternai and colleagues, reckon that the main phase of unloading of the Mediterranean Basin began at around 5.6 Ma. Allowing for loading by the thick evaporites they calculated that the effect of the loss of water mass was equivalent to an unloading of 15 MPa in the deeper Eastern Mediterranean and 10 MPa in the west. Using standard pressure-temperature melting curves for the upper mantle, they then estimated that any magma chambers affected by the decrease in pressure could yield up to 17% more melt. Radiometrically dated lavas and igneous dykes within the Mediterranean region became more frequent and the number of events more than doubled during the time of main salt deposition.

Stromboli, one of the most active volcanoes in the Mediterranean Basin (credit: Wikipedia)

In May 2017 a study of subglacial volcanoes in West Antarctica based on radar mapping of the solid surface identified 138, 91 of them previously unknown (van Wyk de Vries et al. 2017. A new volcanic province: an inventory of subglacial volcanoes in West Antarctica.  Geological Society, London, Special Publication 461) They lie within a buried rift system and are covered by thick ice. Only one volcano in Antarctica is known to be active, Erebus, which is part of the cluster. Most of the news items stemming from the publication mentioned the possibility that the buried volcanic tract could be adding to the instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet through heating up its base. The WAIS is the ice sheet most feared to collapse seawards leading to a rise of about 3 m in global sea level. If the 2 km thick WAIS did slide off its underlying crust it might possibly trigger reactivation of the volcanic cluster.

The late-Ordovician mass extinction: volcanic connections

The dominant feature of Phanerozoic stratigraphy is surely the way that many of the formally named major time boundaries in the Stratigraphic Column coincide with sudden shifts in the abundance and diversity of fossil organisms. That is hardly surprising since all the globally recognised boundaries between Eras, Periods and lesser divisions in relative time were, and remain, based on palaeontology. Two boundaries between Eras – the Palaeozoic-Mesozoic (Permian-Triassic) at 252 Ma and Mesozoic-Cenozoic (Cretaceous-Palaeogene) at 66 Ma – and a boundary between Periods – Triassic-Jurassic at 201 Ma – coincide with enormous declines in biological diversity. They are defined by mass extinctions involving the loss of up to 95 % of all species living immediately before the events. Two other extinction events that match up to such awesome statistics do not define commensurately important stratigraphic boundaries. The Frasnian Stage of the late-Devonian closed at 372 Ma with a prolonged series of extinctions (~20 Ma) that eliminated  at least 70% of all species that were alive before it happened. The last 10 Ma of the Ordovician period witnessed two extinction events that snuffed out about the same number of species. The Cambrian Period is marked by 3 separate events that in percentage terms look even more extreme than those at the end of the Ordovician, but there are a great many less genera known from Cambrian times than formed fossils during the Ordovician.


Faunal extinctions during the Phanerozoic in relation to the Stratigraphic Column.

Empirical coincidences between the precise timing of several mass extinctions with that of large igneous events – mainly flood basalts – suggest a repeated volcanic connection with deterioration of conditions for life. That is the case for four of the Famous Five, the end-Ordovician die-off having been ascribed to other causes; global cooling that resulted in south-polar glaciation of the Gondwana supercontinent and/or an extra-solar gamma-ray burst (predicated on the preferential extinction of Ordovician near-surface, planktonic fauna such as some trilobite families). Neither explanation is entirely satisfactory, but new evidence has emerged that may support a volcanic trigger (Jones, D.S. et al. 2017. A volcanic trigger for the Late Ordovician mass extinction? Mercury data from south China and Laurentia. Geology, v. 45, p. 631-634; doi:10.1130/G38940.1). David Jones and his US-Japan colleagues base their hypothesis on several very strong mercury concentrations in thin sequences in the western US and southern China of late Ordovician marine sediments that precede, but do not exactly coincide with, extinction pulses. They ascribe these to large igneous events that had global effects, on the basis of similar Hg anomalies associated with extinction-related LIPs. Yet no such volcanic provinces have been recorded from that time-range of the Ordovician, although rift-related volcanism of roughly that age has been reported from Korea. That does not rule out the possibility as LIPs, such as the Ontong Java Plateau, are known from parts of the modern ocean floor that formed in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Ordovician ocean floor was subducted long ago.

The earlier Hg pulses coincide with evidence for late Ordovician glaciations over what is now Africa and eastern South America. The authors suggest that massive volcanism may then have increased the Earth’s albedo by blasting sulfates into the stratosphere. A similar effect may have resulted from chemical weathering of widely exposed flood basalts which draws down atmospheric CO2. The later pulses coincide with the end of Gondwanan glaciation, which may signify massive emanation of volcanic CO2 into the atmosphere and global warming. Despite being somewhat speculative, in the absence of evidence, a common link between the Big Five plus several other major extinctions and LIP volcanism would quieten their popular association with major asteroid and/or comet impacts currently being reinvigorated by drilling results from the K-Pg Chicxulub crater offshore of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Gas hydrates: a warning from the past

Detailed acoustic imaging above the Troll gas field in the northern North Sea off western Norway has revealed  tens of thousands of elliptical pits on the seabed. At around 10 to 20 per square kilometre over an area of about 15,000 km2 there are probably between 150 to 300 thousand of them. They range between 10 to 100 m across and are about 6 m deep on average, although some are as deep as 20 m. They are pretty much randomly distributed but show alignment roughly parallel to regional N-S sea-floor currents. Many of the world’s continental shelves display such pockmark fields, but the Troll example is among the most extensive. Almost certainly the pockmarks formed by seepage of gas or water to the surface. However, detailed observations suggest they are inactive structures with no sign of bubbles or fluid seepage. Yet the pits cut though glacial diamictites deposited by the most recent Norwegian Channel Ice Stream through which icebergs once ploughed and which is overlain by thin Holocene marine sediments. One possibility is that they record gas loss from the Troll field, another being destabilisation of shallow gas hydrate deposits.

Troll pockmarks

Parts of the Troll pockmark field off Norway. A: density of pockmarks in an area of 169 square km. B: details of a cluster of pockmarks. (Credit: Adriano Mazzini, Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) University of Oslo)

Norwegian geoscientists have studied part of the field in considerable detail, analysing carbonate-rich blocks and foraminifera in the pits (Mazzini, A. and 8 others 2017. A climatic trigger for the giant Troll pockmark field in the northern North Sea. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 464, p. 24-34; The carbonates show very negative δ13C values that suggest the carbon in them came from methane, which could indicate either of the two possible means of formation. However, U-Th dating of the carbonates and radiocarbon ages of forams in the marine sediment infill suggest that they formed at around 10 ka ago; 1500 years after the end of the Younger Dryas cold episode and the beginning of the Holocene interglacial. Most likely they represent destabilisation of a once-extensive, shallow layer of methane hydrates in the underlying sediments, conditions during the Younger Dryas having been well within the stability field of gas hydrates. Sporadic leaks from the deeper Troll gas field hosted by Jurassic sandstones is unlikely to have created such a uniform distribution of gas-release pockmarks. Adriano Mazzini and colleagues conclude that rapid early Holocene warming led to sea-floor temperatures and pressures outside the stability field of gas hydrates. There are few signs that hydrates linger in the area, explaining the present inactivity of the pockmarks – all the methane and CO2 escaped before 10 ka.

Gas hydrates are thought to be present beneath shallow seas today, wherever sea-floor sediments have a significant organic carbon content and within the pressure-temperature window of stability of these strange ice-like materials. Mazzini et al.’s analysis of the Troll pockmark field clearly has profound implications for the possible behaviour of gas hydrates at a time of global climatic warming. As well as their destabilisation adding to methane release from onshore peat deposits currently locked by permafrost and a surge in global warming, there is an even more catastrophic possibility. The whole of the seaboard of the southern North Sea was swept by a huge tsunami about 8000 years ago, which possibly wiped out Mesolithic human occupancy of lowland Britain, the former land mass of Doggerland, and the ‘Low Countries’ of western Europe. This was created by a massive submarine landslide – the Storegga Slide just to the north of the Troll field – which may have been triggered by destabilisation of submarine gas hydrates during early Holocene warming of the oceans.