GeoTalk: Hellishly hot period contributed to one of the most catastrophic mass extinctions of Earth’s history

GeoTalk: Hellishly hot period contributed to one of the most catastrophic mass extinctions of Earth’s history

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. Following the EGU General Assembly, we spoke to Yadong Sun, the winner of a 2017 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists, about his work on understanding mass-extinctions. Using a unique combination of sedimentological, palaeontological and geochemical techniques Yadong was able to identify some of the causes of the end-Permian mass extinction, which saw the most catastrophic diversity loss of the Phanerozoic. 

Thank you for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

Many thanks for inviting me here. I am currently working at the GeoZentrum Nordbayern, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg as a post-doc researcher.

I grew up in a small coastal town called Haiyang, east to the major city Tsingtao in North China. I moved to central China for university and majored in Geology at the China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) in 2004-2008.

This was followed by an exciting, 5 years split-site PhD program in which I spent two and a half years in China for field work and palaeontological training; half a year at Erlangen Germany for stable isotope and geochemical studies and the final 2 years at the University of Leeds, UK for training in sedimentology.

After my PhD, I successfully applied a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and become an honourable Humboldtian.

In late 2015, two years after my PhD, I had 31 peer-reviewed papers including two in Science but was not fully prepared for the job market. It was already near the end of my fellowship. I only applied for one job—the O.K. Earl postdoc fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, US, but I didn’t get it. Completely unprepared for the situation, I was unemployed for about half a year.

I considered this the first setback in my early career. It taught me a valuable lesson; since I applied various research funding and fellowships and have never failed.

In early 2016, I was offered a postdoc position in a big project from the German Science Foundation (DFG forschergruppe) at Erlangen. I am very happy to be involved in the project and work again with many German and European colleagues.

Meet Yadong, pictured on fieldwork in the Himalayas. Credit: Yadong Sun.

During EGU 2017, you received an Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists for your work understanding the end-Permian mass extinction. Could you tell us a little bit more about this period during Earth’s history?

The end-Permian mass extinction, which happened 252 million years ago, is the most devastating crisis seen in the Phanerozoic (the period of time during which there has seen life on Earth). However, the ultimate killing (or triggering) mechanism of this mass extinction is not fully understood and has been intensely debated for years.

Many fossil groups, in the ocean and on land were completely wiped out. The end-Permian mass extinction had profound influence on the evolution of life on Earth; such was the scale of the dying at this time. Extinction losses appear non-selective; virtually no groups escaped unscathed.

In the oceans some of the most abundant organisms such as the brachiopods (two-shelled organisms), radiolaria and foraminifera were almost (but not quite) eliminated whilst the rugose corals, tabulate corals, goniatites and trilobites were forever lost.

On land, the dominant herbivorous animals, the pareiasaurs, together with the gorgonopsids, the top predators, were lost. They lived in a world in which the dominant trees were the seed-bearing gymnosperms (e.g. glossopterids, gigantopterids, cordaites). All these groups, together with many other animals, including diverse insect groups, failed to survive the extinction.

After the mass extinction, the Early Triassic world was a time of extraordinary low diversity with the same monotonous communities found everywhere. For example, there is a 5 million year gap during which corals are not found in the rock record.

On land this included assemblages dominated by a shrub-like tree fern called Dicroidium, whilst the dominant animal was Lystrosaurus a pig-sized herbivore, belonging to a group called the dicynodonts.

In the world’s oceans, in the immediate aftermath of the extinction, it was the mollusks which occurred in the greatest numbers; a bivalve called Claraia was prolifically abundant just about everywhere.

It took an unusually long time (around 4-5 million years) for the biosphere to start recovering from the end-Permian mass extinction. This is much longer than after other mass extinctions and has lead scientists to speculate that the harsh conditions, responsible for the extinction in the first place, may have persisted for long afterwards.

At the same time, ocean chemistry was probably very different to modern day Earth. The oxygen levels in seawater were very low.

Despite the debate, what do scientists know about the causes of the end-Permian extinction?

The causes of the end-Permian mass extinction are, as a matter of fact, not perfectly understood. There are many different hypotheses. The key is to test the different hypotheses.

At the moment, we know with quite some certainty that anoxia (no free oxygen in seawater) and high temperatures both likely contributed to the end-Permian mass extinction.

Around the time of the extinction, there was massive volcanic activity in present day Siberia, known as the Siberian Traps. The lavas they left behind are known as the Siberian flood basalts. The eruption of the super volcano triggered global warming, voluminous volcanic CO2 inject to the atmosphere could lead to ocean acidification. This is because CO2 reacts with water and becomes carbonic acid (CO2 + H2O ↔ H2CO3). This is a very new and popular hypothesis to explain the mass extinction.

However, I myself am not fully convinced by the ocean acidification theory for the end-Permian mass extinction because there is a lot of evidence for carbonate over-saturated conditions at this time too. Carbonate saturated conditions mean that seawater contains very high concentrations of species such as CO32- and HCO3. They easily combine with Ca2+ and precipice as limestone and calcite cements. High concentrations CO32- and HCO3 have a buffering effect which inhibit the reaction forming carbonic acid. Therefore, it is not really possible to have ocean acidification and carbonate over-saturation at the same time. More detailed studies are needed to investigate this paradox.

In the past, some scientists proposed a sudden cooling or bolide impact as potential causes for the extinction, but these theories are no longer popular because of a lack of evidence.

In your presentation at EGU 2017 you spoke about how the extinction was accompanied by a rapid temperature rise, from 25 °C to 32 °C. How were you able to establish that such a significant temperature rise occurred?

I use oxygen isotope thermometry from conodonts: an extinct eel-like creature. Oxygen has two isotopes—18O and 16O. The ratio of the two isotopes in an animal is proportional to temperature from the oxygen isotope ratio of the water they ingest.

Reconstruction of temperatures for the end-Permian mass extinction is not easy since most shelly fossils died out. Those preserved are often subject to burial changes and therefore no longer preserve the original environmental information.

On the other hand, conodonts survived the end-Permian mass-extinction and are ideal for oxygen isotope analyses. They are very tiny (typically ~300 micro meter long) and consist of biogenic apatite. Apatite has 4 very robust P-O chemical bonds and very difficult to be altered after burial. Therefore, measuring oxygen isotope ratio of conodonts could help solved the problem.

However, because conodonts are so small and rare in rocks, I had to collect 2 tons of carbonate rocks dissolve the rock in acetic acid and pick the conodonts one by one under a binocular microscope, to get a big enough sample! It was a lot of work and required a lot of patience.

A Triassic conodont from south China. Credit: Yadong Sun.

That certainly sounds like painstaking work! Once the tedious task was completed, how were you able to link the temperature records you deciphered from the conodonts with the mass extinction?

All living creatures have a thermal threshold, also called thermal tolerance – the temperature range which they are able to tolerate to survive. It varies significantly amongst different groups. Most animals, on land or in the oceans, cannot live in environments that are consistently hotter than 47 °C. However, certain groups of desert ants and scorpions have developed special mechanisms and can survive 53 °C for a very brief time. Another example is the elevated seawater temperatures which contribute to high death rates of corals.

High temperatures supress photosynthesis. In most C3 plants, at temperatures above 35°C, photorespiration exceeds photosynthesis, wasting the energy generated by the plants.  in most C3 plants. Under such circumstances, C3 plants will stop growing and probably die shortly after. Maximum growth rates of single-celled algae in the ocean are normally achieved below 40°C.

A significant rise in seawater temperatures has many negative effects. One of them is that the amount of oxygen dissolved in seawater decreases as temperature rises, while animals use up more energy to perform even the simplest tasks. . This is one reason for which most marine groups prefer environments < 35°C.

These observations tie mass extinctions with temperature increase.

For our study, once the oxygen isotope ratios of conodonts are measured, we can use it in an equation to calculate the absolute temperature of the seawater at the time. The results show significantly higher ocean temperatures than today. We know the equation explains the relationship accurately because it was established in aquariums where scientists raise fishes in controlled temperatures. As temperatures are known, they measure the oxygen isotope of the water and fish teeth and established the oxygen isotope—temperature equation.

What do your findings mean for the current understanding of the causes of the mass-extinction?

This is an excellent question. There are quite some studies which postulate global warming as a potential killing mechanism for the end-Permian mass extinction. There is a link between the timing of the massive eruptions of the Siberia Large Igneous Province and the end-Permian mass extinction, which has led scientists to propose different warming scenarios. They are all correct, but they are not able to show direct evidence for their hypotheses or quantify the temperature change.

Our data show the worst-case scenario in terms of temperature rise and the mass mortality of species. This does not necessarily imply high temperatures killed everything because many adverse environmental conditions could trigger synergetic effects (for example low oxygen levels). Our study set an example for comparison.

Our results mean that rapid warming, such as what we are encountering at present, is truly worrying.

Yadong, thank you for speaking to me about your reasearch. As an award winner with an impressive career so far, what advice do you have for early career scientists?

Europe is probably the best place in the world for young scientists. It provides considerable fair funding opportunities and many possibilities to work with other scientists in the EU.

However, it is undeniable that fixed positions in academia are rare and highly competitive. It is always the best to go to meetings/conferences at least once a year to showcase your research, meet colleagues and seek collaboration opportunities.

Research projects nowadays are much more complex. Many tasks cannot be done by one person or one team. The success of a young scientist cannot be achieved without the support of senior scientists as well as the community.

Also don’t be shy to contact people and always be prepared for the job market. In the post-doc stage, if your project is very challenging, the best strategy is to work on some small projects on the side and keep publishing.

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal (EGU Communications Officer)


Sun, Y. Climate warming during and in the aftermath of the End-Permian mass extinction, Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 19, EGU2017-2304, 2017, EGU General Assembly, 2017

Join us at EGU 2018: Call-for-abstracts is now open!

Join us at EGU 2018: Call-for-abstracts is now open!

From now, up until 10 January 2018, you can submit your abstract for the upcoming EGU General Assembly (EGU 2018).

In addition to established scientists, PhD students and other early career researchers are welcome to submit abstracts to present their research at the conference. Further, the EGU encourages undergraduate and master students to submit abstracts on their dissertations or final-year projects.

The EGU recognises that there are many outstanding students who would benefit from attending and presenting at the General Assembly and, therefore, provides a discounted registration rate to this group. Interested undergraduates can apply to present a poster, talk or PICO presentation on research undertaken in a laboratory setting, on a mapping or field project they’ve been involved in during their degrees, or any other research project of relevance.

Browse through the EGU 2018 sessions. Clicking on ‘please select’ will allow you to search for sessions by Programme Group and submit your abstract to the relevant session either as plain text, LaTeX, or a MS Word document. Further guidelines on how to submit an abstract are available on the EGU 2018 website.

An innovative presentation format – Presenting Interactive Content, better known as PICO – has been implemented at the General Assembly since 2013. PICO sessions bring together the advantages of both oral and poster sessions, allowing authors to present the essence of their work and follow it up with interactive discussion. Please note that some sessions are ‘PICO only’ sessions, meaning you cannot select oral/poster preference. If you are submitting to a PICO only session be sure to check out our PICO guide, for tips on how to prepare your presentation.

The deadline for the receipt of abstracts is 10 January 2018, 13:00 CET. If you would like to apply for financial support, now called the Roland Schlich travel support, to attend the 2017 General Assembly, please submit an application no later than 01 December 2017. We’ll be providing further information about how to apply for travel grants and how they are awarded in a forthcoming post.

EGU 2018 will take place from 08 to 13 April 2017 in Vienna, Austria. For more information on the General Assembly, see the EGU 2018 website and follow us on Twitter (#EGU18 is the official conference hashtag) and Facebook.

EGU announces 2018 awards and medals

EGU announces 2018 awards and medals

From 8th to the 14th October a number of countries across the globe celebrate Earth Science Week, so it is a fitting time to celebrate the exceptional work of Earth, planetary and space scientist around the world.

Yesterday, the EGU announced the 49 recipients of next year’s Union Medals and Awards, Division Medals, and Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Awards. The aim of the awards is to recognise the efforts of the awardees in furthering our understanding of the Earth, planetary and space sciences. The prizes will be handed out during the EGU 2018 General Assembly in Vienna on 8-13 April. Head over to the EGU website for the full list of awardees.

Nineteen out of the total 49 awards went to early career scientists who are recognised for the excellence of their work at the beginning of their academic career. Fifteen of the awards were given at Division level but four early career scientists were recognised at Union level, highlighting the quality of the research being carried out by the early stage researcher community within the EGU.

Nine out of the 49 awards conferred this year recognised the work of female scientists. Of those, four were given to researchers in the early stages of their academic career (at the Division level).

As a student (be it at undergraduate, masters, or PhD level), at the EGU 2017 General Assembly, you might have entered the Outstanding Student Poster and PICO (OSPP) Awards. A total of 57 poster contributions by early career researchers were bestowed with a OSPP award this year recognising the valuable and important work carried out by budding geoscientists. Judges took into account not only the quality of the research presented in the posters, but also how the findings were communicated both on paper and by the presenters. Follow this link for a full list of awardees.

Further information regarding how to nominate a candidate for a medal and details on the selection of candidates can be found on the EGU webpages. For details of how to enter the OSPP Award see the procedure for application, all of which takes place during the General Assembly, so it really couldn’t be easier to put yourself forward!

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria from 8  to 13 April. The call-for-abstracts will open in mid-October. Submit yours via the General Assembly website.

GeoTalk: The anomaly in the Earth’s magnetic field which has geophysicists abuzz

GeoTalk: The anomaly in the Earth’s magnetic field which has geophysicists abuzz

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Jay Shah, a PhD student at Imperial College London, who is investigating the South Atlantic Anomaly, a patch over the South Atlantic where the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker than elsewhere on the globe. He presented some of his recent findings at the 2017 General Assembly.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I’m currently coming to the end of my PhD at Imperial College London. For my PhD, I’ve been working with the Natural Magnetism Group at Imperial and the Meteorites group at the Natural History Museum, London to study the origin of magnetism in meteorites, and how meteoritic magnetism can help us understand early Solar System conditions and formation processes.

Before my PhD I studied geology and geophysics, also at Imperial, which is when I studied the rocks that I spoke about at the 2017 EGU General Assembly.

What attracted you to the Earth’s magnetic field?

Jay operates the Vibrating Sample Magnetometer at the lab at Imperial. Credit: Christopher Dean/Jay Shah

My initial interest in magnetism, the ‘initial spark’ if you like, was during my undergraduate, when the topic was introduced in standard courses during my degree.

The field seemed quite magical: palaeomagnetists [scientists who study the Earth’s magnetic field history] are often known as palaeomagicians. But it’s through rigorous application of physics to geology that palaeomagicians can look back at the history of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by rocks around the world. I was attracted to the important role palaeomagnetism has played in major geological discoveries such as plate tectonics and sea-floor spreading.

Then, during my undergraduate I had the opportunity to do some research alongside my degree, via the ‘Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme’ at Imperial. It was certainly one of the bonuses of studying at a world-class research university where professors are always looking for keen students to help move projects forward.

I was involved in a project which focused on glacial tillites [a type of rock formed from glacial deposits] from Greenland to look into inclination shallowing; which is a feature of the way magnetism is recorded in rocks that can lead to inaccurate calculation of palaeolatitutdes [the past latitude of a place some time in the past]. Accurate interpretation of the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by rocks is essential to reconstructing the positions of continents throughout time.

This was my first taste of palaeomagnetism and opened the doors to the world of research.

So, then you moved onto a MSci where one of your study areas is Tristan da Cunha, a volcanic island in the South Atlantic. The location of the island means that you’ve dedicated some time to studying the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA). So, what is it and why is it important?

The SAA is a present day feature of the magnetic field and has existed for the past 400 years, at least, based on observations. It is a region in the South Atlantic Ocean where the magnetic field is weaker than it is expected to be at that latitude.

The Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet and satellites orbiting around Earth from charged particles floating around in space, like the ones that cause aurorae. The field in the SAA is so weak that space agencies have to put special measures in place when their spacecraft orbit over the region to account for the increased exposure to radiation. The Hubble telescope, for example, doesn’t take any measurements when it passes through the SAA and the International Space Station has extra shielding added to protect the equipment and astronauts.

If you picture the Earth’s magnetic field:  it radiates from the poles towards the Earth’s equator, like butterfly wings extending out of the planet. In that model, which is what palaeomagnetic theory is based on, it is totally unexpected to have a large area of weakness.

Earth’s magnetic field connects the North Pole (orange lines) with the South Pole (blue lines) in this NASA-created image, a still capture from a 4-minute excerpt of “Dynamic Earth: Exploring Earth’s Climate Engine,” a fulldome, high-resolution movie. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We also know that the Earth’s magnetic field reverses (flips its polarity), on average, every 450,000 years. However, it has been almost twice as long since we have had a flip, which means we are ‘overdue’ a reversal. People like to look for signs that the field will reverse soon; could it be that the SAA is a feature of an impending (in geological time!) reversal? So, it becomes important to understand the SAA in that respect too.

So, how do you approach this problem? If the SAA is something you can’t see, simply measure, how do you go about studying it?

Palaeomagnetists can look to the rock record to understand the history of the Earth magnetic field.

Volcanic rocks best capture Earth’s magnetic field because they contain high percentages of iron bearing minerals, which align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field as the lavas cool down after being erupted. They provide a record of the direction and the strength of the magnetic field at the time they were erupted.

In particular, I’ve been studying lavas from Tristan da Cunha (a hotspot island) in the Atlantic Ocean similar in latitude to South Africa and Brazil. There are about 300 people living on the island, which is still volcanically active. The last eruption on the island was in 1961. In 2004 there was a sub-marine eruption 24 km offshore.

Jürgen Matzka (GFZ Potsdam) collected hundreds and hundreds of rock cores from Tristan da Cunha on sampling campaigns back in 2004 and 2006.

We recently established the age of the lavas we sampled as having erupted some 46 to 90 thousand years ago. Now that we know the rock ages, we can look at the Earth’s magnetic field during this time window.

Why is this time window important?

These lavas erupted are within the region of the present day SAA, so we can look to see whether any similar anomalies to the Earth’s magnetic field existed in this time window.

So, what did you do next?

Initial analyses of these rocks focused on the direction of the magnetic field recorded by the rocks. The directional data can be used to trace back past locations of the Earth’s magnetic poles.

Then, during my master’s research dissertation I had the opportunity to experiment on the rocks from Tristan da Cunha with the focus on palaeointensity [the ancient intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by the rocks]. We found that they have the same weak signature we observe today in the SAA but in this really old time window.

The rocks from Tristan da Cunha, 46 to 90 thousand years ago, recorded a weaker magnetic field strength compared to the strength of the magnetic field of the time recorded by other rocks around the world.

Some of the lavas sampled on Tristan da Cunha. Credit: Jürgen Matzka

What does this discovery tell us about the SAA?

I mentioned at the start of the interview that, as far as we thought, the anomaly didn’t extend back more than 400 years ago – it’s supposed to be a recent feature of the field. Our findings suggest that the anomaly is a persistent feature of the magnetic field. Which is important, because researchers who simulate how the Earth’s magnetic field behaved in the past don’t see the SAA in simulations of the older magnetic field.

It may be that the simulations are poorly constrained. There are far fewer studies (and samples) of the Earth’s magnetic directions and strengths from the Southern Hemisphere. This inevitably leads to a sampling bias, meaning that the computer models don’t have enough data to ‘see’ the feature in the past.

However, we are pretty certain that the SAA isn’t as young as the simulations indicate. You can also extract information about the ancient magnetic field from archaeological samples. As clay pots are fired they too have the ability to record the strength and direction of the magnetic field at the time. Data recorded in archaeological samples from southern Africa, dating back to 1250 to 1600 AD also suggest the SAA existed at the time.

Does the fact that the SAA is older than was thought mean it can’t used be to indicate a reversal?

It could still be related to a future reversal – our findings certainly don’t rule that out.

However, they may be more likely to shed some light on how reversals occur, rather than when they will occur.

It’s been suggested that the weak magnetic anomaly may be a result of the Earth’s composition and structure at the boundary between the Earth’s core and the mantle (approximately 3000 km deep, sandwiched between the core and the Earth’s outermost layer known as the crust). Below southern Africa there is something called a large low shear velocity province (LLSVP), which causes the magnetic flux to effectively ‘flow backwards’.

These reversed flux patches are the likely cause of the weak magnetic field strength observed at the surface, and could well indicate an initiating reversal. However, the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field on average at present is stronger than what we’ve seen in the past prior to field reversals.

The important thing is the lack of data in the southern hemisphere. Sampling bias is pervasive throughout science, and it’s been seen here to limit our understanding of past field behaviour. We need more data from around the world to be able to understand past field behaviour and to constrain models as well as possible.

Sampling bias is pervasive throughout science, and it’s been seen here to limit our understanding of past field behaviour. This image highlights the problem (black dots = a sampling location). Modified from an image in the supporting materials of Shah, J., et al. 2016. Credit: Jay Shah.

You are coming towards the end of your PhD – what’s next?

So I moved far away from Tristan da Cunha for my PhD and have been looking at the magnetism recorded by meteorites originating from the early Solar System. I’d certainly like to pursue further research opportunities working with skills I’ve gained during my PhD. I want to continue working in the magical world of magnetism, that’s for sure! But who knows?

Something you said at the start of the interview struck me and is a light-hearted way to round-off our chat. You said that palaeomagnetism are often referred to as ‘paleaomagicians’ by others in the Earth sciences, why is that so?

Over the history of the geosciences, palaeomagntists have contributed to shedding light on big discoveries using data that not very many people work with. It’s not a big field within the geosciences, so it’s shrouded in a bit of mystery. Plus, it’s a bit of a departure from traditional geology, as it draws so heavily from physics. And finally, it’s not as well established as some of the other subdisciplines within geology and geophysics, it’s a pretty young science.  At least, that’s why I think so, anyway!

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and further reading

Shah, J., Koppers, A.A., Leitner, M., Leonhardt, R., Muxworthy, A.R., Heunemann, C., Bachtadse, V., Ashley, J.A. and Matzka, J.: Palaeomagnetic evidence for the persistence or recurrence of geomagnetic main field anomalies in the South AtlanticEarth and Planetary Science Letters441, pp.113-124, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2016.02.039, 2016.

Shah, J., Koppers, A.A., Leitner, M., Leonhardt, R., Muxworthy, A.R., Heunemann, C., Bachtadse, V., Ashley, J.A. and Matzka, J.: Paleomagnetic evidence for the persistence or recurrence of the South Atlantic geomagnetic Anomaly. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 19, EGU2017-7555-3, 2017, EGU General Assembly 2017.