We’ve Seen This Before: What The Extinctions in Our Geologic Past Indicate About the Dangers of Current CO2 Emissions

Deep CO2 in the end-Triassic Central Atlantic Magmatic Province

Manfredo Capriolo, Andrea Marzoli, László E. Aradi, Sara Callegaro, Jacopo Dal Corso, Robert K. Newton, Benjamin J. W. Mills, Paul D. Wignall, Omar Bartoli, Don R. Baker, Nasrrddine Youbi, Laurent Remusat, Richard Spiess, and Csaba Szabó

Summarized by Lisette Melendez. 

What data were used? 

This study investigates the large-scale volcanic activity that would eventually lead to the end-Triassic Extinction, one of the top five most devastating extinction events for life on Earth, that occurred about 201 million years ago. The volcanic eruptions took place across the globe, leading to a massive sheet of volcanic rocks known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, or CAMP for short. Considering that the volcanic activity took place before the supercontinent Pangea was fully split apart, CAMP rocks can be found in North America, Africa, and Europe, as shown in Figure 1. Scientists used both intrusive (magma that crystallized underground) and extrusive (magma that cooled on the Earth’s surface) rock samples to investigate the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, released into the atmosphere during these catastrophic eruptions.

Methods: By analyzing the concentration of the carbon dioxide bubbles (Figure 2) trapped within the crystals that were formed during the volcanic eruptions, scientists can determine the speed and frequency of the eruptions. After collecting more than 200 samples, the concentration of carbon dioxide within the rocks was determined using microspectroscopy: a method that shows the spectra of the sample in order to identify and quantify the various compounds that are present. 

Results: Overall, there was a high volume of carbon dioxide bubbles within CAMP rocks. Since CO2 is an accelerant for magma eruptions, the volcanic activity was likely hasty and violent. The rapid rise of CO2 in the environment means CO2-removing mechanisms, like weathering, aren’t enough to balance out the excess CO2. This leads to a carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere, accelerating global warming and ocean acidification.

 

Figure 1: A map of the boundaries Central Atlantic Magmatic Province in central Pangea, around 200 million years ago. It shows how wide-spread the volcanic eruptions were during this time.

Why is this study important? The study of CO2 saturation in rocks helps us understand the role that volcanism played in the buildup of excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that triggered the end-Triassic extinction. It showed that the more rapid the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is, the more severe the environmental impact.

The big picture: This study can be used as a warning for current trends, considering that the amount of CO2 emitted during the CAMP eruption roughly equals the amount of projected anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) emissions over the 21st century. Just like in the past, the current substantial rise in CO2 is leading to a global temperature increase and a surge in ocean acidification, but we are releasing CO2 much faster than at any other time in Earth’s history. Considering that these are the same conditions that led to one of the worst biotic extinctions in Earth’s history, it is vital to encourage our governments to implement radical climate change policies in order to slow the current rise of CO2 to prevent more environmental destruction. 

Figure 2: The black arrows point towards the bubble-bearing inclusions within the rock samples using light optical microscopy. The high concentration of CO2 within these bubbles indicates the magma was rich in CO2. These four samples are specifically orthopyroxene (Opx), clinopyroxene (Cpx), and calcic palgioclase (PI), and were sampled from Canada and Morocco.

Citation: Capriolo, M. et al. Deep CO2 in the end-Triassic Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. Nat Commun 11, 1670 (2020).

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Lisette Melendez, Geology and Astronomy Undergraduate Student

Standing outside of NASA Ames, where Lisette worked in aiding the lunar landing mission!

What is your favorite part of being a scientist?

Ever since I was very young, I’ve always had a fascination with geology. In elementary school, I would tout around my battered copy of the Smithsonian handbook on rocks and minerals and take notes in my “research journal”. Rocks littered every available surface of my room, and my ears always perked up when we finally reached the Earth Science section of our science classes. What’s cooler than learning about Earth’s layers and how volcanoes form? During field trips, I would sometimes get separated from the group, too mesmerized by rocks that I found on the ground. Even with all these signs, it wasn’t until the end of my first year in university that I realized that I could become a geologist and work with rocks for a career. 

I started off in a field that I was pressured into but that I had no passion for. How could I miss geology as a career option? For many years prior, every geologist that I encountered in my textbooks were white men. While I was working on one of my assignments, I looked over to see what my friend was working on. The assignment was to use Steno’s Laws of Stratigraphy to determine what order the rock layers were deposited. I thought the assignment was fascinating while my friend looked at me with a strange face. They told me about their professor, Dr. Sheffield, and how passionate she was for geology and all the amazing fieldwork she’s done throughout her career. This was a mindblowing moment for me: it was the first time I learned about a female geologist. That same day, I went to the student affairs office and changed my major to Geology. 

From that day forward, I got to experience first hand what a difference doing what you love made in one’s life. My favorite part of being a scientist is simply that there’s always more to learn. Every single day, I wake up incredibly excited to go to class and learn about minerals, volcanoes, and paleobiology. I still remember being in my old major looking wistfully at the Mineralogy class on the USF course inventory. I’m forever grateful that now, that’s what I study all the time! I look over my room and now there are textbooks on planetary volcanism, astrobiology, and sedimentology that join the rocks scattered on various surfaces. Sometimes, I feel like I never really changed from that child who loved rocks: now, I’m just working to be able to collect rocks for the rest of my life.

What do you do?

Right now, I’m studying geology and astronomy at the University of South Florida. My future goals are to get accepted into a PhD program for planetary science, and then hopefully work on the research team that analyzes samples from the surface of Mars and become a curator at a natural history museum! 

Most of the research I do works towards uncovering the geologic past of celestial objects. It’s the perfect overlap between my two favorite subjects: geology and astronomy! Last summer, I conducted research about Martian ice caps at Brown University through the Leadership Alliance – an awesome program aimed at increasing diversity in STEM (read my Time Scavengers post about it here!). I also interned at NASA, where I helped write the code of a navigation program that would assist scientists locate ideal landing areas on the Moon. This upcoming summer, I’m really excited to be working with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on analyzing meteoritic samples collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. The samples collected contain information on the earliest history of our solar system! I’m using my time in undergraduate studies to get a clearer idea of what branch of planetary science I’d like to delve into in graduate school.

Volunteering as a mentor for NCAS (NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars).

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change and the betterment of society in general?

I believe research in the planetary sciences helps humanity as a whole by illuminating our role in the universe. By addressing the questions of the universe,  the answers to our day to day problems become clearer through perspective. It’s easier to plot out humanity’s destiny and how to build a better society for everyone by figuring out where we came from and how the universe around us is changing. This is particularly important when considering the future of humans in space. Being able to find geologic analogs of celestial terrain (like the Martian surface) on Earth will help us decide which crops and structures work best for the Martian environment. As we continue exploring the universe, it’s important to keep in mind universal codes of safety, planetary preservation, and anti-imperialism in order to avoid harming the new environments we enter.

What methods do you use to engage your audience and community? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?

One of the first pieces of advice that one of my mentors, Dr. Mustard, bestowed onto me was that “science is never done in a vacuum”. Collecting scientific data is an incredibly exciting part of research, but it’s also essential to communicate your findings with others to increase scientific literacy and humanity’s pool of knowledge. Science is all about sharing what you’ve learned and what you’ve experienced. It is much more rewarding involving different perspectives and helping everyone feel included. Through my officer positions at two clubs at USF, the Geology Club and the Contemporary Art Museum Club, I promote the importance of STEAM and interdisciplinary research. I believe one of the keys to successful science communication is to express why one’s excited about the topic and to make it relatable to what others are interested in. I’m really excited to join Time Scavengers as a science communications intern in order to hone in on this essential skill and become a better scientist overall.

Standing at the base of the 40 foot radio telescope at Green Bank Observatory!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

My advice would be to just take a moment and think about what you really want from life. I’ve spent countless years just trying to follow what others expected me to do that I never really thought about what I wanted to be. Following the path others decide for you is no way to live your life. You’re the one who will have to live out your career path, so choose one you’re passionate in! There’s definitely space for you! There is such a wide range of fields, from studying bugs to glaciers, you deserve to make your mark the way that you want to.

Finding where you belong is essential to unlocking the zeal that will pull you through obstacles and challenges. Prior to joining the geology department, I was a very shy and reserved person. However, my passion for geology and astronomy (and the endless kindness from geologists) gave me the courage to overcome my anxieties and become resilient in the face of adversity. I transformed from a quiet and socially anxious person into the president of my university’s Geology Club and founder of USF’s Society of Women in Space Exploration Chapter. Openly doing what you love will also surround you with like-minded individuals that are the key to building a good support group! My favorite part about becoming a geologist would definitely be being able to network and meet others who are just as passionate about rocks as I am. It’s exhilarating, being friends with geologists and gathering around in the parking lot of a Waffle House to examine an outcrop. The feeling of togetherness is unmatched.