Research Beat: Geoscience professors participate in study of prehistoric mass extinction

Volcano’s are primarily thought of as lava-spewing mountains, but their secondary effect of throwing tons of ash into the air can be just as (if not more) destructive. Tracy Frank and Christopher Felding of the UConn Department of Geosciences recently published a report on the results of this ash in extinction events. (Photo by Björn Austmar Þórsson from Pexels)

This week, Tracy Frank, head of the University of Connecticut Department of Geosciences, and Christopher Fielding, a geoscience professor, were part of a published report detailing the impact of toxic microbe growths on the Permian mass extinction over 250 million years ago, a UConn Today article reported. 

The Permian extinction is believed to have been caused by a massive series of volcanic eruptions in modern Siberia. The event resulted in over 90% of species on Earth dying — more than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. 

“Our work is focused on rocks along the east coast of Australia because they preserve a complete record of the environment on land at the time of the catastrophe,” Frank said. “Forest-mire ecosystems (swamps) that had flourished for millions of years were devastated over a short time period.” 

The volcanoes contributed massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, choking out land vegetation, as well as raising the temperature. Both of these factors contribute to the growth of algae and microbes such as cyanobacteria, according to UConn Today. 

“The algae and other microbes converge on those food resources, use up all the free oxygen in the water body and it then becomes both toxic and anoxic (lacking in oxygen) so that animals that rely on oxygen die en masse,” Fielding said. 

While algal blooms happen naturally, the sudden spread of these toxic blooms from the volcanoes mimic the trends in current bodies of water. The 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that rising carbon dioxide levels directly caused by human activities will create more of these algal blooms and threaten aquatic life. 

“Any undergraduate students interested in pursuing studies of past environmental crises can apply to graduate programs here or at other universities,” Fielding said. 

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