Life’s end: mass extinctions

dino

Volcanoes affect life. That is as true for volcanoholics as it is for other life forms. As Bjarki pointed out, the puffins on Bogoslof are not going to be impressed, when returning to their nesting holes to find them all gone, blown up to bits or filled with ash and lava. They will be affected by the errant eruption. The penguins of the South Sandwich Islands also live at the mercy of their resident volcanoes. As do the Icelanders.

But in all of living memory, no species is known to have gone extinct as a result of a volcanic eruption. Volcanoes affect life – they do not wipe it out, at least not beyond their immediate environment. The tortoises of the Galapagos have evolved and survived in their volcanic home, in spite of not being known for their ability to outrun a pyroclastic flow. If any species would be at volcanic risk, it would be them. And still they live.

Going back further in time, things change. Five major mass extinction events have been identified in the fossil record. The most famous of these is the so-called ‘K-T event’, 65 million year ago, which is linked to the demise of the dinosaurs. This was a bad one: few creatures bigger than a small dog survived. But it is not the only one, nor is it the worst one on record. And volcanoes carry at least part of the blame. Your local volcano, friendly, albeit explosive, is not a risk to the species. But flood basalt eruptions are a different matter. They are infrequent, distant – and deadly.

The main extinction events often fall at the boundary between geological eras, as is reflected in their names. They are the Ordovician-Silurian extinction, 440 million year ago, the Devonian extinction, 360 million year ago, the Permian-Triassic extinction, 250 million year ago, the Triassic-Jurassic extinction, 210 million year ago, and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction: 65 million year ago. Three of these coincide with major flood basalt eruptions: the P-T event, the T-J event, and the K-T event. (It is obvious what these abbreviations mean, apart from KT where the K is from the German name for the Cretaceous.)

The blue lines shows the rate of extinctions over time, clearly showing several mass extinctions. The red bars show the known flood basalt eruptions, most recently that of the Columbia River. The largest extinctions coincide with flood basalt events. The relation is not conclusive: better dates would be needed how well they coincide. But it is suggestive. Original at https://www.le.ac.uk/gl/ads/SiberianTraps/Images/LIPsExtinctions_jpg_files/LIPsExtinctions.jpg (University of Leeds)

The blue lines shows the rate of extinctions over time, clearly showing several mass extinctions. The red bars show the known flood basalt eruptions, most recently that of the Columbia River. The largest extinctions coincide with flood basalt events. The relation is not conclusive: better dates would be needed how well they coincide. But it is suggestive. Original at https://www.le.ac.uk/gl/ads/SiberianTraps/Images/LIPsExtinctions_jpg_files/LIPsExtinctions.jpg (University of Leeds)

Extinction

So what happens during a mass extinction? A global catastrophe reduces the number of species by half or more. It affects not just one environment, but all or almost all of the globe, and impacts every ecological niche.

In the O-S extinction, life was still based in the seas. These were hammered (ok, perhaps ‘hammered’ is not the best expression for a sea, but you get the gist). 85% of life in the sea died, possibly in two different episodes a few hundred thousand year apart. Trilobites were badly reduced, by 90%, although they survived as a group. The event coincided with a major ice age but it is not clear whether this ice age is responsible. It has been suggested (somewhat speculatively) that the ice age was caused by explosive plant growth which reduced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere so much that it led to the ice age.

In the Devonian extinction, 75% of all species died out, with especially the shallow seas devastated. The corals of the day died out, and reefs took 100 million year to recover, when new types of coral had finally evolved. This extinction may be linked to a sharp drop in sea temperatures. Animals had only just made it on to the land, but apparently the newly evolved land-conquerors did not survive. The next evidence for land-based amphibians occurs ten million year later, and they may have had to re-evolve. How different life could have been!

The P-T event was the worst, with over 90% of species dying out. This was the only mass extinction which also affected insects. The ‘Great Dying’ is the closest life came to be eradicated. It will be the topic of the next post.

The T-J event is a bit of a strange one, with sea life and animals badly affected but plants not. The domination of the dinosaurs was undisputed after this event. Beforehand, some mammals were still competing with the dinosaurs on equal footing.

The K-T event is famous for being the one that removed the dinosaurs from the Earth. But much other form of life was also affected: about 50% of species disappeared. Surprisingly, of all the dinosaur-related life, only the birds survived. Birds are not the most robust form of life, so how did they survive something that eliminated so much else? The one thing that stands out is that birds can traverse long distances over sea. They could have survived on a remote island and re-spread. Dinosaurs could have survived in such a place as well, but unable to make their way to the continents, they finally disappeared when the island went down – Atlantis of the dinosaurs. (This is of course extreme speculation.) Birds ruled the world, until mammals became competitive. (New Zealand kept out the mammals, and until human settlement was the last vestige of this post K-T world-of-the-birds.) The dominance of sharks in the seas came after the K-T event removed their competitors.

These are the five major extinctions in the fossil record. There may have been older events, but there is little fossil record pre-dating the Cambrian, and so it is not possible to find evidence. There are also some 18 minor extinction events known, which affect a smaller percentage of species, and may only affect one major group of life forms.

Flood basalt eruptions

Normal volcanoes only affect their immediate environment, or if they are so large that there are global effects, those effects are not long-lasting. Tambora’s year without summer was worldwide, but only one year. Even Toba, the worst bang on record, an eruption like a Trump tweet, did not destroy the world.

Flood basalt eruptions are different. They erupt along long rifts, draining huge magma reservoirs in the process. Volumes are enormous, and individual flows can be hundreds of kilometers wide, 500 kilometer long and 50 meter deep. And coming at you faster than you can run. The most recent one was the Colombia flood basalt, in the western US, 16 million year ago. Huge amounts of sulphates are released. There may be some explosions, but the eruptions are largely effusive, like the Icelandic fires but incomparably larger. Locally, they are not as dangerous as explosive eruptions (although not without danger – just the heat from the lava flows can still lift debris into the stratosphere, and therefore cause secondary pyroclastic flows even without explosions). But the enormous volumes can give large distant impacts.

Large flood basalt eruptions (or LIPs: large igneous provinces) are infrequent but not rare. The official LIPs database lists 47 such events over the past 500 million year, of which 36 are in the past 250 million year, so on average there is one per 7 to 10 million year. Many are not well dated, and the age may only be known to the nearest 100 million year. Some are related to mantle plumes, whilst others are part of continental or oceanic rifting events. There is one within the UK: the North Atlantic Volcanic Province, 60 million year old, also found in Greenland and covering an area of 1.3 million square kilometer. It is associated with the formation of the North Atlantic Ocean, and perhaps still continues as Iceland but that is disputed. Severe flood basalts form much of their volume within a fairly short period, perhaps 1 million year. Many LIPs have formed more sedately, over a much longer period of time. Iceland can be considered a LIP but is not such a short-lived flood basalt. The Colombia flood basalt was a short-period event.

It is notable that there have been relatively few of these events over the past 100 million year. As many (but not all) occur during the formation of new oceans, it makes sense that you get more flood basalt eruptions during a supercontinent, when they are in the process of breaking up (which supercontinents do most of the time). We are living in quiet times, as far as flood basalts go.

Lists of the largest flood basalt eruptions can readily be found on-line. However, these should be used with caution. Often, the true size of a flood basalt is not well known as most of it is covered under later sediment. So the ‘largest’ ones are really the ‘most obvious’ ones, or even worse, the best studied. As an example, one of the largest known is the Kerguelen LISP. But this benefits from being on the ocean floor, where it is readily visible as a huge dome (with an island on one end). But it may have formed over a 30 million year time span which is far too long, so it may actually be a combination of several separate events. The largest one by area, as far as known, is the Ontong Java event, also below the ocean, but also with more than one age (125 million year and 85 million year).

LIps_map

Now we can ask the question whether the flood basalts coincide with the main mass extinctions. The answer is ‘Yes, but..’. There is a good correlation between the P-T extinction and the Siberian Traps, between the T-J extinction and the Central-Atlantic Magmatic Province, and between the K-T event and the Deccan Traps. But other flood basalts, including the largest, do not correlate with an extinction peak. And one has to wonder about the accuracy of the dates. The most accurate dating has been done for those already suspected of involvement. Plots of the correlations, such as the one above, exclude events with uncertain dates (or worse, pick the ‘best’ date among several possible). This makes the correlation look better than it really is. And with one every 10 million year, you do really need very accurate dates.

For the three events listed above, there is a very good coincidence in the timing. But whether this is by chance or not, and why some would cause extinctions but some other equally large events would not, is open for discussion.

The causes of mass extinctions

To explain a mass extinction, three things need to be defined. First, the type of event that caused it. Second, the product of this event that did the damage. Third, how that product caused death. As a specific example, the main proposed causes are impact and flood basalt eruptions. The product that (potentially) causes mass death can be dust, which can cause a decade of darkness and winter. The cause of death can be starvation, or freezing, or more. Since different types of events can lead to similar effects (i.e. both impacts and volcanoes can cause dust), it can be difficult to ascertain the original cause, even if we know everything else about the extinction!

Dino_Volcano

To get a mass extinction, there has to be a global change to the environment. There are several possibilities: the climate, the air, or the water. But what can cause a change so severe that half or (much) more of all life dies? It can be a severe ice age, much worse than the Earth has seen recently. A volcanic eruption may poison the entire world with sulphate and fluorine. But it is actually difficult to envisage an event that is so bad that it impacts the habitability of the entire world.

One geological principle says that only Earth can affect Earth. Mass extinctions must therefore be due to something internal to the Earth, such as volcanic eruptions. But this principle is incomplete, because we know that external factors cannot always be ignored. The extinction of the dinosaurs coincided with a big impact, the ultimate external factor. This led people to go to the other extreme, and suggest that all extinctions should have an external, impact origin. But clearly, things are not as straightforward as that. For the K-T event, there was both a major bang (impact) and a boom (the Deccan Trap eruption), so which one was to blame? And this is not the only such case. The Eocene (minor) extinction 30 million year ago has been blamed on a flood basalt, but recently the Popai impact crater in Russia was found to have exactly the right age. Both flood basalts and major impacts are not that common. It seems that statistically, both correlate with extinction events, and in several cases they both coincide with the same extinction event. Pick your choice: are you an internalist or an externalist?

Two solutions are possible. First, it has been suggested that a big impact can trigger a flood basalt eruption. There is no clear reason in physics why this should be, but that does not mean it is impossible. (At one time it was thought a big impact could cause some effect at the opposite point on Earth, the antepodal point. But the Chicxulub crater and the Deccan Traps are not antepodal enough for this, and again there is no physics model behind this idea.) The fact that the Deccan Traps eruption began well before the impact is a bit of a blow to this theory. Impacts do big things, but they can’t make time run backwards, no matter how attractive living in the past may seem. That pretty much killed the idea that impacts caused the flood basalt eruptions.

The original Chicxulub crater, before being buried by sediments

The original Chicxulub crater, before being buried by sediments

The other solution is that it takes two to tango. An event can lead to a mass extinction if the environment is already stressed for some other reason. In this model, the Deccan Traps set the scene, so that the impact could wipe out the dinosaurs. Neither the Deccan nor the Chicxulub impact could have done this by themselves. But together, they killed of T. Rex. Impacts the size of Chicxulub may happen once per 50 million year, perhaps more often. The Deccan Trap eruption may have lasted a million year, so the chance of such an impact happening during the stress time is 1 in 50. That is bad luck, but not impossibly bad. And seeing that there is a flood basalt eruption every 10 million year, over 500 million year you are talking about even chances that one such impact will coincide with one flood basalt eruption. There is no need to suggest that impacts can cause flood basalts: quite apart from the lack of a base in physics, flood basalts are frequent enough that it is more than likely that one will coincide with a big impact. A decent risk analysis would have flagged the possibility to the dinosaurs.

ark

Now one should not panic too quickly. Nowhere on Earth is there any indication of an imminent flood basalt eruption. The signs would be hard to miss: prior to the eruption, a huge bulge would form, caused by inflation from the magma chamber and the hot mantle underneath. There are many eruptible magma chambers on Earth but none in such a location. They occur on average 10 million year apart – that is a very long time. On geological time scales, they are frequent. On human time scales, they are non-existent. Adding to this that only some flood basalts cause mass extinctions, when different circumstances come together, and you’ll soon find other things to worry about! Neither is there a major impact due. If there was an extinction-size asteroid heading for us in the next century, chances are we would already know about it.

It appears that life is robust enough to deal with minor mishaps. It takes something big to get a mass extinction, and only huge events can give massive mass extinctions. This can be one individual event, or it be a sequence of unfortunate events. What is the role of volcanoes? Are they always contributors in part? Are they innocently accused? Or are they the main cause of mass extinctions? It seems they have a major role to play in most mass extinctions. That friendly neighbourhood volcano has a dark secret to hide.

Next: the Permian extinction

110 thoughts on “Life’s end: mass extinctions

  1. The model where volcanism stresses the environment and a subsequent bolide impact provides the coup de grace could also be considered in the CE535-40 events and the question of cultural extinction in human history.

    • That could be considered, but there is good evidence for two separate major volcanic eruptions around 540, and no evidence at all for an impact. The two volcanoes are almost certainly the culprits.

      • Back in 410 and 476 the Roman Empire was already collapsing. Earlier there was civil war and crisis. This probably linked to global cooling
        The 536 events was just a further shock
        Dark ages but the Roman Empire survive well into the 15th century

        • I would respectfully disagree with you on this. The (eastern) Roman Empire had recovered by 530 AD, and was in a strong position. It reconquered quite a lot of the mediterranean and if there had been no 540AD event, could have re-established the old Roman Empire. The disasters of 536-550, including two major eruptions and a major disease, weakened it so much that this did not happen.

      • If that burckle crater thing ever pans out there could be a connection. But, that a heavily contested idea.

  2. There is a possibility that the Decan Traps dating might be slightly misdated and have occurred after the impact event. Especially when such dating has a margin of error. Then the theory that an impact causes a flood basalt is not out of question.

    It´s also possible that impact extinction happened, when not just one body impacted, but several, either at same time or within a short geological timescale. It´s even likely that the transit of a nearby star passing close enough to the solar system (something quite common actually) triggers a disruption at the Oort cloud and send masses of bodies towards the inner solar system.

    • Geolurking brought this up quite a while ago, but the antipodal impact theory doesn’t work when you account for the fact that most asteroids or comets that strike Earth do so on an angle. The antipodal theory would only work if the impact strikes at a direct perpendicular angle of the earth.

      With that said, this actually may prove that there could have been more of a relationship between large impact events and flood basalts. This could potentially explain why something such as the Deccan Traps are not directly aligned at the antipode of the Chixiclub impact crater.

      • Even iif the impact comes with an angle the energy chock wave will travel at 90 degrees from the surface towards the antipode. Modelling shows that. I will try finding the references…

    • Another one I occasionally hear is that the impact was actually a huge lava bomb or part of India being thrown up during the deccan traps eruption.

      It is pretty far fetched though.

  3. The six mass extinction, the current one!, is actually caused by several factors stressing the environment:

    – mass reduction and destruction in area of habitats (by farming, grazing, urbanization, etc)
    – climate change, and species are not allowed to migrate northwards, due to habitat disruption
    – human hunting of those species
    – introduction of alien species, such like predators (dogs, cats), or invasive tree species
    – mass scale fishing
    etc

    Also our own species is been stressed by many factors recently. Though we are very abundant at the moment, I think we are actually risking an extinction of the human species itself. Dangers include the biosphere destruction, climate change, wars, crazy politicians….

    • Yep, its natures mechanism of dealing with the overpopulation of any single species, the human folly is we think we can subvert this mechanism.

    • Actually disease is the most likely cause of the collapse of human society. Our well connected and vulnerable population will likely follow a route similar to amazonia following the european arriva. Ie be nearly wiped out. When this happens agriculture will return to C19 productivity and the sustainable world population will be rather tiny. That’s before the wars for the now limited resources thin people out even more.

      Good news, eh?

      • Dang!
        Our well connected and vulnerable population will likely follow a route similar to amazonia following the european arrivaI before the european diseases nearly wiped them all out.
        sigh….

  4. Albert: i’m on duty this night; thank you for this interesting and entertaining topic. How long does it take for a species to be exterminated?

    • Typically, species live for a milion year or so. It varies a lot though! Extinction can be fast, or it can be a drawn-out affair. Passenger pigeons took a few decades, trilobites a hundred million years.

      • Passenger pigeons were a single species; trilobites AFAIK were a large number of species, which may have had different (genetic?) levels of sensitivity to environment change, thus blurring the record Would that account for the difference?

        • Trust you to spot that one! Yes, this is not a like-for-like comparison. Pigeons as a group are likely to survive anything. The last few trilobite species went extinct very quickly, 250 million year ago.

    • Except for species of conspicuous animals that have disappeared in well-documented parts of the world in the last 500 years, we don’t have much idea, because the paleontological record is fragmentary and our sampling of it rather arbitrary. I work with fungi, both fossil and living, and I cannot think of any example of a fungus where it can be documented that a genus has gone extinct. Ctenosporites might be cited, because it is abundant in tropical assemblages from Cretaceous-Oligocene, but it’s so obviously the conidium of one of those leaf-inhabiting black molds, in a group nobody works with, so that casual collecting in the tropics routinely turns up new genera. The species concept is so vague and poorly understood in fungi that talking in terms of species in the sense of an animal species is not productive.

      • I didn’t know that! The fossil record is rather fragmentary at the best of time, and of course many areas produce no fossils. Trilobites are perfect: they lived precisely in those environments that produced fossils, and you see a fairly fats turn-over of species and slow decline for the group (genus) overall until the final event. I guess that plants are also fairly well represented in fossils, and insects are probably more patchy?

        • Land plant macrofossils have some sampling biases but the record of pollen and spores is very well documented. Pollen in particular is very resistant to degradation you can often tell the genus that produced it, and small amounts are transported over long distances confirming the presence of species that grow in habitats not conducive to the preservation of macrofossils. For example, people looking for the earliest evidence of land plants, of whom I was one, found the distinctive spores on hornworts, then classified as a bryophyte but now considered to be on the Tracheophyta branch of the tree of life, in nonmarine assemblages from the Ordovician. This humble member of the vegetable kingdom has evidently made it through all major extinction events. Cockroaches are rather ephemeral by comparison.

          The estimates of dieoff during extinction events are based heavily on marine microfossils – diatoms (plant), foraminifera (protozoa) and the like.

  5. Something that is much more difficult to analyze with these events is how a potential disruption to the biosphere could have impacted life. Given, it’s pretty obvious that there had to be some sort of large event that caused the start of these extinctions, but in many instances, it may be more closely related to the chain reaction of after-affects caused by the initial catastrophe than the actual catastrophe itself.

    One marker that is prominent in a large portion of extinction events is oceanic anoxia, which is essentially the deprivation of oxygen in oceanic environments. Oceanic anoxia is generally a biologically driven event that occurs when food sources are too abundant in water, which triggers growth of Algae blooms, Jellyfish, and other types of organisms that not only produce toxins and kill many oxygen-dependent life forms, but also completely starve the environment of all the available oxygen.

    The interesting thing here, is that Anoxia is triggered by the release and buildup of volcanic gases in the atmosphere, most notably co2 (which is cause to be alarmed with our current emissions of co2). Our current world is having issues with localized sulfate triggered anoxic events, but these are largely related mostly to fertilizer runoff.

    So lets look at this as a potential timeline:

    1. Volcanic Trap Event Occurs
    2. Mass co2 and volcanic gas alter the environment, changing global temperatures.
    3. Changing and increasing oceanic temperatures due to volcanic gases causes the mass release of methane gas trapped on the ocean floor in methane hydrates, which adds a large compounding affect to increase global temperatures (runaway greenhouse affect).
    4. Volcanic gases and global temperature change affect the oceans, causing acidification and the development of mass amounts of toxic blooms.
    5. The complete ecosystem of the ocean collapses.
    6. Animals dependent on the ocean for food sources go extinct.
    7. Animals already on land are still being greatly affected by changing environmental shifts caused by a trap event and runaway greenhouse affect, including heightened aridifcation, which is not beneficial for supporting life forms.

    “Many geologists believe oceanic anoxic events are strongly linked to slowing of ocean circulation, climatic warming, and elevated levels of greenhouse gases. Researchers have proposed enhanced volcanism (the release of CO2) as the “central external trigger for euxinia”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anoxic_event

    TL:DR, Climate change is scary, and massive volcanic events such as flood basalt events can trigger runaway climate change that causes mass extinctions.

    • Edit: didn’t mean to say too abundant in water, meant “too abundant in a body of water”, and that’s mostly relating to microbiological food sources for stuff like algae and bacteria.

    • One more, say, 7.25: Land animals, stressed by the climatic changes, migrate farther into previously unknown lands in search of food and habitat. This introduces pathogens and predators into the new habitats and the new habitat has existing pathogens that can push the stressed animals and new habitat fauna over the edge.

  6. ARkStorm

    “describes an extreme storm that might impact much of California”

    Further in the Wikipedia article “Windspeeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds.” I read a news report the other day that stated gusts at sime peaks in Squaw valley were clocked at 170+mph. And… it appears that California is probably going to get nailed by another “atmospheric river” fed storm in the not too distant future. Another low system seems to pull up to the BC/ Oregon coast around the 21st. That will provide steering for the moisture flow… seemingly aimed at Northern California.

    To find out what the worst could be, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Flood_of_1862

    No, this is not an extinction event… unless you get caught up in it like many cattle did in 1862… or unless you are in the path of a mass wasting event if a hillside gives way.

    • We in NE Oregon haven’t seen above freezing for over a week
      and even at that,we have had only a couple of +4C days, most of the time snow then cold for the last five days -9 C for the high and
      -12/-15C for the lows.. Keeping a fire all night water running and
      the furnace up. I’ve been moving all my firewood into the garage
      from my wood storage area. Have not seen the ground since Dec7.
      Now we have that forecast pineapple clipper…
      Can’t wait…
      Great article btw. I am inclined for the Eruption/impact scenario….

      • um…. is this normal? The usa is such a big place with so many difficult environments its hard to know fro the UK.

        • Well , it isn’t unusual. NE Oregon is like a bit of
          Montana/Idaho stuck in the NE corner of a mostly
          high desert state East of the Cascade Mountains..
          The concept of Oregon as evergreens and rain is
          greatly overdone.. Western Oregon is very much
          like Britain in climate. But the rest is much like
          all of the Great Basin west…

          • Not very common to have sub-zero temps for days in the UK. Does happen, but say once a decade.

            When its a pain….

    • Here in Northern California, our Winter has been more “typical” to that prior to the 1976-77 climate shift. The elevated precip in the Sierra that the media keeps hyping as some type of once in 150 yr. event is really not that unusual. The pattern we have been experiencing is mostly due to the anomalous location of High Pressure/Rex Blocks/Omega blocks in the Cent./North Pacific that has frequently pushed well into the Arctic..which in turn places the west coast of North America under general troughiness downstream of the blocks/high’s. Couple this with a re-energized jet stream, and what you get is a long fetch of sub-tropical moisture flowing E-W within a relative trough that has on occasion spanned a good swath of the Pacific before plowing into California within narrows plumes or “Atmospheric Rivers”. Due to the absence of large areal coverage of these types of events, both Southern California and Northern Calif have seen significantly lower precip than Cent California which has experienced the brunt of the AR’s.
      ATTM, there is (and will continue to be) much re-analysis performed on this year’s generic Wx pattern…with a focus on why High Pressure.blocking has been so anomalously placed up in the Bering Sea. With Arctic Sea Ice still well below the previous historical minimum (El Nino after-effects???), and NE Asia/Siberia experiencing one of it’s coldest and snowiest Winter’s in years, there will be lots to chew on in the coming years.
      Personally, due in part of the sheer proximity, I’ve also considered the volcanic activity in Kamchatka as being part of the issue (perhaps minor, but a contributor none-the-less). While the many, many eruptions in Kamchatka are generally minor and short lived, they have been nearly continuous for many years now, and I suspect over time some of the atmospheric effects may be becoming cumulative which has in turn has led up to the anomalous Siberian cold and placement of the NPac ridge/block and the unusual activity downstream.
      Anyway, thanks Albert for a most thought-provoking (and sobering) article.
      Will be very interested to read part two shortly.

      • And, I should also note, that the excessive winds that GL alluded to, have been more the result of a very strong low-level jet, and not necessarily due to any mega-lows with their associated wind fields.
        And I can also confirm, that the highest crests of the Sierra have indeed seen winds >170mph during two of the recent AR’s.

      • From what I saw in the northern hemisphere in the past months it was pretty clear. There was a strong upsurge from temperature, as heat from the Pacific ocean was released to the atmosphere (this heat blob was already visible back in 2013), then 2016 was top hot. During autumn, the jet stream was pumping incredible heat into the Arctic, which displaced the polar vortex southwards both into Canada and into Siberia. This is what happened.

        • I see where you’re going, but it’s too simplistic.
          The polar vortex has for the most part been cut in half…with inflow into the Arctic coming from North Atlantic/Greenland and moving over the North Pole….not unlike what we saw during last year’s super El Nino (SEN). This influx of heat had been so pronounced this year as to allow the ice cap to shrink even though Arctic Winter had set in.
          And BTW, the “Blob” (or the more recently coined Ridiculously Resilient Ridge or RRR) has wreaked havoc on the west coast of N.A. for much of the last 10 years, save for the present pattern and in 2009-2010 when a modified Midoki setup brought California its last decent rain-year.

          • One final note, (as I’m tying up a lot of space here), the “Blob” and last year’s El Nino were not related (as near as we can tell). The blob/RRR was well in place long (years) before the SEN kicked in.

          • The Pacific was already very warm since around 2010. And in the blob, since late 2013, that become rather significant, as well as since 2015, across the entire ocean, as the extreme El Nino of 2015-2016.

            There was also another blob, but a cold one, across the North Atlantic, seen south of Greenland since 2013, which is in correlation with cooling climate when I lived in Iceland in 2013 to 2015. But that was not solid and so clear.

            Extreme Gulf Stream heat also travelled to the Arctic in several ocasions. Last seen this autumn.

            Another freak events was the diruption of the quasi-biennal oscilation in 2016.

            In Antartica, the Larsen C ice shelf is about to collapse. And then this might result in the start of thawing of the West Antartica peninsula.

            I think this *can be* all related but we can´t be sure.
            Anyways, weather has been extreme warm in parts of the world during summer 2016, but as of late 2016, we have seen a serious displacement of the polar cold from the North Pole into Siberia and also some into Canada. This was unusually early too.

            We can´t say where the climate is heading but honesty I think the “homestatic” state of global climate has gone into a transition state, with increasing chaos, and I think we will see it progressing into a new steady state, possibly very different. We know from historical record, that massive climate shifts can occur in as little as a decade, and they can be very serious. They can both occur into warmer states or colder states.

            I think from Astronomical cycles. forcing is not seriously pushing us into a ice age. Solar forcing is currently pushing us into a little ice age. But CO2 forcing is pushing us into a dramatic state of warming. Other factor destabilize the climate such as massive deforestation (unseen in long time in Earth´s history). Its going to be funny to see how this mess will end up.

          • What I find interesting, though I haven’t even tried to compare heat capacities, is that Axial seamount had a pretty sizable eruption during the lead up to the blob. From what I have read, it did a flood basalt style eruption down there. No idea how that would translate to how much water heating it could do. The volumes involved are stupendous.

          • The heat capacity of sea water and lava are not dramatically different. The value for water is about twice that of lava. The volume of surface layer of the relevant area of the Pacific is of order 1-10 million cubic kilometer (larger if you try to heat the deeper areas too). If the eruption put out 1 km3 at 1000C, it would heat the pacific surface layer by 1 milli-degree. That is not a lot.

            The current events in the arctic are extraordinary. But we need a few years to judge whether is is a one-off or a new pattern. The oceans have been warming steadily in the upper layers over the past 50 year. The El Nino last year was a blip on this – soon the pacific will be that warm every year.

          • Dunno. My initial guess is that one cubic meter of basalt cooling from 1100°C to 50°C releases enough energy to raise the temperature of 600 cubic meters of water by about 1°C.

          • On global warming:
            1) Its happening, london and new york are not 1km deep under ice.
            2) Glaciers have been retreating for centuries, and well documented.

            On mans contribution:
            1) Probably minimal until circa 1900, other than mass deforestations in the neolithic.
            2) Almost certainly now significant to very significant.

            On what to do about it:
            1) Reduce CO2 emissions.
            2) Realise that even with (1) we are going to see serious and ecologically damaging changes in climate over the next century.
            3) Start planning for the new order, which is sea levels at least 50m higher and much of the best farming land removed from human usage.

            So far none of the three items above have been actioned.

            Surprise, surprise…..

            However we also need to consider mechanisms why a warm earth rapidly plunged into an ice age. It takes huge amounts of energy to evaporate 200m worth of sea water and precipitate it into high latitudes. Conside a very warm ocean able to produce enough water vapour to dump say 10m of snow in high latitudes, could this trigger an albedo effect great enough to change the climate and produce those km-high icecaps? People worry about small changes in solar absorbtion, but covering 30% of the earth in a reflective sheet results in 10’s of percent changes in net solar energy absorbtion. I’m not saying I think this IS the mechanism, just that its one to consider.

          • Sudden dramatic cooling has happened in the past, for instance at the start of the Younger Dryas when temperatures dropped by 2-4C within 50 years. We don’t want that again! It seemed it was caused by a disruption of the ocean circulation. The warming up at the end was equally dramatic, in three spurts within 50 year each lasting 5 year. But current global warming approaches this, and the upper projections approach the heating rate after the Younger Dryas. The Younger Dryas was not world-wide, so that is different from the current situation.

        • @Irpsit
          Thank you for the additional commentary!
          I think we are in agreement on most of the items you’ve brought up.
          However, I would still like your opinion on possible Kamchatka eruption influences on the general patterns up in NE Asia and in the Arctic….since this is a key area for determining our weather here in California..and perhaps more far-reaching than that.
          On such a small scale (as compared to a Krakatoa-level eruption), the possible influences are probably small, but fascinating nonetheless. On one hand, there is particulate matter that can both cool (via radiational shielding), or warm via changing the opacity of snow/ice. Then, you have Co2 as a GHG, but also SO2 which can act as a cooling agent (limited in Kamchatka I grant you, due that the SO2 is not being injected into the atmosphere above the tropopause to create aerosols).
          I have searched an-nauseum for a quantitative number of Kamchatka eruptions per year to confirm if there is actually a volcanic spike going on that I could check on my own if there is any possible correlation to the anomalous Wx patterns here along the west coast over the last 10 years, or whether the current eruptive periodicity is the same as it always has.
          But alas, still in the dark on this one I’m afraid.

          • Annual eruption count in Kamchatka starting with 1996 (from a list I made myself):

            1996-2005: 4, 8, 4, 4, 5, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4.

            2006-2016: 3, 5, 5, 5, 6, 5, 6, 8, 4, 4, 4.

            Hope this helps 🙂

          • I doubt that Kamchatka is having an impact in the climate of any other region in the world. Iceland had two very large eruptions, one VEI5 and SO2-rich, injecting some SO2 into the stratosphere and one, without doing it, but massive in terms of SO2 levels. I think only a large explosive eruption, VEI6+ VEI7 can trigger something like that. Otherwise not.

            Climate-wise, California is probably affected by the changes in the Pacific, the gradual warming of the ocean, and the El Nino and La Nina cycles.

            Worldwide, there is no doubt that we are in an ongoing massive climate change, this is serious but surprising no major politician is acting (and now the odds are even lower!). So as a father of a child that goes to live hopefully into the year 2100, I prepare for a future of massive global disaster, and civilization breakdown. Unfortunately I dont believe in tech as a savior, (as tech to be a solution it requires a stable society, which we dont have) because long before that, we will break our social stability and consensus, when people start getting angry, fearful and crazy. We are already seeing this. The tensions amidst the western world are worrying to say the least.

  7. 2 Earthquakes on Carl’s Habunga (Grimsvotn). Nothing huge, but considering this area had been somewhat aseismic, this could be relevant.

    • Three now, although two are unconfirmed:

      Saturday
      14.01.2017 19:18:21 64.365 -17.399 9.6 km 1.4 99.0 7.5 km SW of Grímsfjall
      Saturday
      14.01.2017 17:42:08 64.357 -17.391 5.6 km 1.3 90.03 7.7 km SW of Grímsfjall
      Saturday
      14.01.2017 16:42:52 64.365 -17.393 4.1 km 1.6 90.02 7.2 km SW of Grímsfjall

      Definitely an area to keep an eye on.

  8. Having trouble sending reply’s to some of the comments, so sorry for making another post.

    @GL, Thank you!
    I’ve thought the same thing about the deep eruption off the Oregon Coast a few years back which buried some seafloor cables from the University of Oregon (I think). It’s interesting to note that only after they did a visual recon of the area that the eruption was finally noticed…not one instrument nearer land picked up anything as far as volcanically induced seismic activity. Hmmmm? So much for advance warning for the next Cascadia big-one, eh? But that’s a totally different topic.
    One other thing that adds to the possibility of volcanic contamination being involved in changing the ocean’s properties, is that during the same time frame, the entire west coast Salmon and Steelhead fishery nearly collapsed quite suddenly, bait fish as well as other predators disappeared, yet SST’s down here (~40N) were not that abnormal (at that time). These fisheries normally thrive along the Pacific coast (and in the GoA), yet this was the area hardest hit….so there is a lot a contradictory/conflicting data to muddle through.
    I’ve read many possible explanations for the rapid Salmon decline (which recovered to some extent last year after authorities shut down commercial and sport fishing for ~2 years), mostly involving changes in all of the spawning-river habitats…..but a prolonged oceanic eruption fouling the water over a wide area and forcing fish to migrate 1,000’s of miles from normal makes the most sense, given all the available observations we have ATTM.

    • Glad it’s of use… but remember, it’s not my feild. I could be off by a whole planet. The correct way to do it is to calculate the energy loss of the magma and the effect that would have on a given mass of water. Heat capacity (CP) of the affected material is needed, I typically use “engineering toolbox” as source. They seem to be pretty accurate.

      I do remember back when Bob did it’s thing south of La Restinga, some measurements of ocean pH near there were as low as 5.0 and a few high speed open ocean fish were killed swimming through the contaminated water area.

      Speaking of the Canaries… evidently they have been growing the same species of Barley for 2000+ years.

      http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/01/2017/ancient-barley-seeds-give-insight-into-history-of-canary-islands

      • Thank you!
        Yes, very interesting about the smokers…and something I had not heard of before.
        Hmmm, silent smokestacks of pollution being introduced at depth?
        I wonder what this must taste like to all the nearby lifeforms.

        • Food. It tastes like food to all the nearby lifeforms that have adapted to live in that habitat off the geochemicals spewing from those nozzles.

    • For any passers by who wish to tackle this calculation, there are a lot of unknowns you’ll have to allow for. How much magma was erupted, what it’s actual temp was, the temp of the water, how much cooling of the magma occured… etc. Dont forget that the energy calculations are in kelvin. In your favor, kelvin increments are the same size a degree C, but offset by around 273.15. For each CP increment per kg of water, the temp goes up by one degree C. Likewise, for each degree cooling of the magma, it looses one CP of energy to the cooling medium (assumed to be the water).

      For example, I get 2,734,200 kJoules of energy loss for one cubic meter of basalt cooling from 1100°C to 50°C.

      Some of the areas of uncertainty are what the CP of molten basalt is, how the energy of fusion plays into it, and many other variables. Vaporization of the water doesn’t come into play since the pressure is too great for that to happen. It’s above the critical point and steam can’t exist. (Which is also the reason that there is a certain depth that many Yellowstone quakes occur at, right about where that pressure gradient crosses the critical point. Superheated water percolates above that threshold and flashes to steam.)

      Side, sidenote: Basalt has a density of 3100 kg/m³. Seawater 1030 kg/m³ …and that changes with depth and temperature.

      Another refernce that may be of use… Engineering Toolbox.

      I invite anyone who feels up to it to give the calculations a try. You can’t do much worse than I have, and it might open your eyes to the massive forces at work. As for the uncertainties, Enrico Fermi’s method of dealing with them was pretty cool.

      In a nutshell “…typically involve making justified guesses about quantities and their variance or lower and upper bounds.

      And the most important advice I can give you, is to always remember, that if you had to make a guess or an assumption to get to the answer, it’s accuracy critically depends on how accurate your assumption is. Just because a formula coughs up some result, that doesn’t make it absolutely true. it’s still just a guess. ALL models are like that. Garbage in = garbage out.

      • Something else to consider… the volume of magma has likely NOT completely cooled yet. That could take several hundred years, and points towards why there are black smokers down there. Once the magma crusts over, the speed of heat loss slows since the crust of the magma acts as a thermal insulator.

        • I wonder how many large lava fields from seamount eruptions that are releasing heated water in our oceans? Considering the very slow cooling/heating and perhaps addition of heat from below, one could expect an enormous heating effect on ocean waters. Are there any published calculations on this?

  9. Whohoo being mentioned in VC article, hmm it’s about end of days, yay go figure 😛

    Interesting read, looking forward to the next part

  10. It looks like the possible intrusion in Haabunga could have been ice afterall. GPS seems to have come back to normal.

    • That agrees with our initial suspicion (‘backchannel chatter’). We were waiting for confirmation from other GPS’s before jumping to eruption status. We did hope though.

    • Dunno, my impression was “gravity wins”.

      … also, “mass wasting” is an inherent property of Hawaiian Islands.

      The Tuscaloosa seamount is a good example. It’s actually more than double the size of Tuscaloosa Alabama.

      “The largest landslide, dubbed the “Nuuanu debris avalanche,” extends 140 miles out to sea from Windward O‘ahu. In the middle of it, 60 miles northeast of Nuuanu Pali, is Tuscaloosa Seamount: 19 miles long, 11 miles wide and more than a mile thick. This single rock, with a volume of 230 cubic miles, was once part of O‘ahu.”

      No, I don’t think it’s actually a single rock, but a contigious mass of tephra and old magma flows that moved as a single unit once it became detached from the island.

      • From the linked pdf;
        “Geologist Wright says the huge landslides are too rare to worry about. “A quarter of a volcano sliding off is not something that can be responsibly projected as a hazard in a lifetime,” he said. But the slides come in medium and small sizes, too, and Wright thinks people should think about where new construction sites go.”

        But, keep in mind that the Hilina slump contains about 10% of that islands mass. It’s technically in progress, but slowed for the time being by a young volcano off the coast that is holding the slide mass in place. Sort of propping it up. (Lōʻihi Seamount)

        • And Kilauea is holding up the slope of Mauna Loa. I am becoming more convinced by the idea that the two interact, not through a shared magma reservoir but by the pressure from one magma reservoir on the other. There is an impression that activity in the two is related. At the moment Kilauea has stabilized again (magma seems to flow easily from the centre to the eruption site) and Mauna Loa has gone to sleep.

          Mauna Loa is tall and steep. The south side needs propping up.

          • I would have loves to see the South Kona landslide expose the core of the SWRZ when it let go. Since the magma was basaltic, it wouldn’t have been another St. Helens, but still…

  11. Apparently this January Monday is the gloomiest day of the year. It affects even volcanoes. Things can only get better!

    • Dunno about that. All I can add is the site motto from Zerohedge. “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” Along with that idea; Enjoy life while you can because no one gets out alive.

      Pessimistic? Well, if you like. But remember, the glass is neither half empty nor half full. That portion not occupied by water is occupied by air, so technically, the glass is completely full.

      • Geolurking, I often ask to myself, what am I going to do if I die within the next 5 years (something unlikely but possible!). However I smile, because statistically it´s only a couple percent that die that young.

    • Albert, It is statistic and certainly over the years I notice that the moods of people get lower from between November to February, at least across Europe. I think December has a short-term relief from the winter blues due to Christmas time and all the atmosphere around. Choose which month is more melancolic, November or January. Come February and the mood lifts, with increasing daylight and possibly the very first signs of spring.

      And many would argue for a Monday. But I personally think Tuesday are worse for those with a regular job, as the positive impact of the weekend is long gone.

  12. As a Christian and a Creationist, I believe that these mass extinctions were caused by Noah’s Flood when the Lord God punished the whole sinful creation by water. This flood was accompanied by massive high speed plate tectonics which caused large flood basalt eruptions, large VEI 8 eruptions, rapid depositing and folding of strata and rapid building of mountains. See Genesis chapters 6–9.

    Saint Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:3-7

    “3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.”

      • Classic geological typos of our time: “Trilobites evolved their amazing eyes in order to help them escape from their creditors”

        They didn’t go extinct; they just went bankrupt! 😀

      • The sin came into God’s perfect creation when Adam and Eve were misled by satan when they ate an apple of the Tree of Knowledge between Good and Evil. This is called the Fall of man which had catastrophic consequences to the whole cosmos. Since then every human is born in sin, but there is a solution to the problem of sin, God sent Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, to our world to bear our punishment of our sins at the Cross of Calvary where He shed His Precious Blood as an atonement for my and your sins. He conquered death when he rose from the dead on the third day! Everyone who accepts Jesus Christ as his or her personal Saviour and Lord is saved from judgement!

        • I think we’ll end the conversation there before people get insulted/riled/possessed by trolls and break the No. 1 rule of not being nice. You are entirely free to voice your opinion dawmast, but I doubt your belief will gain much traction amongst an evidence based readership.

      • I think we should stick to empirical data which does allow for this sort of thing however improbable. Uncertainty principle for instance. Science isn’t the absence of superstition it just attempts to prove or disprove the likelihood. If anything science is open to any explanation as long as the audience is open to hearing the probability of each one. I still have yet to hear a good explanation of what the first cause is from science and how probable that first cause is, all things being equal.

          • Not quite what was meant, I think. If you replay the big bang, do you get the same kind of Universe? That is an open question. It needs some fine-tuning to get a universe where life is possible (for instance, it should last longer than a second), and how to do the fine-tuning is an open question. Even harder than fine-tuning a volcano prediction.

          • You get every kind of universe, in a quantum superposition, of course. And one of the eigenstates winds up with the physics we’re familiar with — that’s the way the symmetry crumbles. And one bundle of superposed histories inside that branch has the Earth form. And a narrower bundle has the same history of life’s evolution, up to the emergence of Homo sapiens. Etc.

            There’s actually very little information “input from the outside”, basically the Schrodinger wave equation and maybe some quantum gravitational stuff, if that doesn’t turn out to be thermodynamically emergent. We can infer that these probably describe the mathematical object richest in observer-moments, just from having found ourselves inside it, and little wonder, since quantum thermodynamics of decoherence will spawn an exponentially multiplying profusion of alternate universes, easily finding one where self-aware beings evolve, and that one in turn will spawn an exponentially growing mess of alternate histories, each in turn with an exponentially growing sapient population inside it …

          • That is one possible interpretation, popular but not universally accepted. It has the problem that it doesn’t explain anything (a theory that can produce anything predicts nothing). A completely different opinion is that we do not exist but live inside a simulation. Again, there are no obvious ways to test the model. There are also some other models which try to avoid the singularity at the origin. Its is work in progress.

  13. Must have been a great rollercoaster ride!!!

    So thats how the fossils got into the rocks when a mountain suddenly decided to fold on top of a heard of herbavours. There I was struggling with the concept of mud and silt taking thousands and thousands of years and the pressure needed to create fossils.

    All along it was fast rocks!

    Brilliant. Perhaps I will use that on a car insurance claim. The rock moved so fast I couldn’t avoid it.

    • If we’re talking Hawai’i, a rollercoaster isn’t the most appropriate analogy. What’s Hawai’i known for (apart fromvolcanoes)? Surfing.Tuscaloosa must have been the longest,wildest ride of all time. Hang Ten,baby!

    • Great! VC inspired..? (I think the reason for the snail’s shape is in physics rather than biology. A grassy-shape would need a much thicker cover to withstand shocks.)

      • A one off attempt. Written in frustration when the department workshop was blocked for weeks as the technician tried to make prof a machine for ‘automatically’ measuring the shells. It didn’t work……

        • There is a snail in the next post. It is provisionally scheduled for Friday..a long wait, but that’s snails for you.

  14. Long time lurker here, and OT: has anyone been keeping an eye on NZ Geonet’s webcams?
    I do most days. I mention it because the last few days there’s been a vent, or persistent geyser, visible on the Tongariro webcam. Also there’s a weak signal on the drum as well (see 12-20 hours before current timestamp as at 9pm GMT):

    It looks more like a hydrothermal thing but it’s persisted now for three days. It wasn’t there before about Sunday. Difficult to see today as it is cloudy and wet at the site, but you can see the plume in here from about 2pm local time:

    Near to the skyline above the “N” of “NZDT”. Yesterday there were some quite large puffs.

    OK, I’ve just found their FTP archive, this is a pretty typical pic from yesterday:

    You can see the FTP directory for yesterday here. Small plume just to the right of centre. The timestamps on the files seem to be UTC not NZ local.

    I’ve seen nothing on the net the last few days so I thought I’d mention it for VC denizens to consider!

    Modified links slightly so the images display inline
    Admin\

      • Here is the map going back to 2008 when this series began at L’Aquila. The current quakes filled in a gap between L’Aquila and the 2016 quakes to the north. There may be a smaller gap remaining around Norcia but it is probably too small for a big earthquake.

        Going back further, what stands out is a large earthquake (M6.7) 20-30km southeast of L’Aquila, which happened in 1915, Jan 13 and destroyed the town of Avezzano. (Many sources list it as an L’Aquila earthquake but Avezzano was far worse affected). That region has been quiet since and has escaped the current series which terminated just southeast of L’Aquila. It is possible the current series release tension caused by the 1915 earthquake. But a recurrence of the 1915 event can perhaps not be ruled out.

      • It’s not a particularly threatening looking slope. Leave it to a quake to get stuff moving in a big way. I’m guessing that some sort of snow liquefaction occurred in the snow pack. Based on the USGS plots for the Mag 5.7, the slopes above the hotel were in the MMI-4.5 shake contour. That’s about 4.3% g peak acceleration at a peak velocity of around 4.8 cm/s. But, once a snow pack has a slab failure, don’t be in it’s path. Like it’s cousin, the Lahar, they are far more lethal based on what is in the flow than the flow itself. The insidious part of an avalanche, is that when the snow stops, it welds in place.

        Why the 5.7? That was the largest one I’ve seen in the set on USGS.

        The spooky bit is that they’ve had about 4 of these quakes in the last day or so. In an interview on one of the news sites, a geologist stated that they were not on the same fault line as the last large quakes, but on a nearby fault system.

        That’s likely a sister fault, much like the San Jacinto and Elsinore faults are sisters of the San Andreas further to the east in the Salton Sink. The Elsinore gets “up close and personal” with San Diego. At least one of it’s related faults runs down San Diego bay. If I remember correctly, the fault trace disappears somewhere near the airport. At the time they discovered it, I lived in the area and it was my only quake experience. They aren’t nice things. I watched the apartment building swaying back and forth and was quite happy to be standing outside.

        • Central Italy also has had an extreme amount of snow these last couple of days, not just regular winter amounts.

          • Its just been reported on Good Morning Britain that up to 30 people are feared dead after the avalanche the amount of earthquakes yesterday have also been mentioned.

        • “Two survivors have been rescued as workers search for at least three people still missing.

          The rescued pair have been named as Giampiero Parete and Fabio Salzetta by Italian media. they sent a WhatsApp message to rescuers which read: “Help help we are dying of cold”.”

          And updated version of the article from the link above.

          http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/756018/italy-avalanche-pescara-hotel-staff-guests-missing-rome-earthquake

          And yet another example of karma operating in strange ways. Had he not misplaced something (usually seen as a bad thing) he likely would have died.

          “Mr Parete survived because he went outside to look for something inside his car.”

          …so, the next time you have an unexpected delay, relax, karma might be keeping you out of worse trouble. One time I had a flat tire in my driveway that kept me from being anywhere near a multi-car pile up on the interstate. It occurred exactly where I would have been at had I been on schedule. Even if you are inconvenienced, it might have been good luck after all.

    • HCL. Not a fun chemical to inhale (very toxic). Quite prevalent in “steam” from magma-seawater interaction.

    • Spot the blooper; as a native of Edinburgh, that is NOT a picture of Arthur’s Seat, which is out of frame on the right. That’s Salisbury Crags, a basalt/dolerite sill intruded long after Arthur’s Seat and unrelated to it

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