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Toxic Gases Caused World's Worst Extinction

An ancient killer is hiding in the remote forests of Siberia. Walled off from western eyes during the Soviet era and forgotten among the endless expanse of wilderness, scientists are starting to uncover the remnants of a supervolcano that rained Hell on Earth 250 million years ago and killed 90 percent of all life.
Researchers have known about the volcano -- the Siberian Traps, for years. And they've speculated that the volcanic rocks, which cover an area about the size of Alaska, played a role in runaway global warming that led to the end -- Permian mass extinction, the worst dying the planet has ever seen.
Now a team of researchers led by Henrik Svenson of the University of Oslo in Norway have performed a series of experiments, showing the volcano employed an arsenal of deadly weapons during its 200,000-year-long assault on the biosphere.

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Prime among them was carbon. Searing magmas from the volcano intruded into the Tunguska Basin in eastern Siberia, a region laden with thick deposits of coal, oil and gas. Heat from the molten rock baked the hydrocarbons, turning the area into the world's largest fossil fuel-burning plant. In all, the volcano may have belched as much as 100,000 gigatons of carbon into the air (all of humanity emits about eight gigatons of carbon annually).
That's more than enough to cause a global climate apocalypse. But the team also wanted to know what happened when lava infiltrated the area's abundant salt deposits. When heated in a laboratory to 275 degrees Centigrade (527 degrees Fahrenheit), the salts released a host of toxic gases, chief among them methyl chloride, an efficient ozone-killer.
"This is the first geologically realistic evidence that ozone collapse during the end-Permian could have actually happened," Svenson said.
But there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the findings, Linda Elkins-Tanton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said.
"There is evidence of a large number of genetic mutations in the fossil record around this time," she said, which could be the result of an onslaught of ultraviolet radiation due to a weak ozone layer. "But the idea of ozone destroyers is pretty new. The question is whether or not the eruptions were powerful enough to inject gases into the stratosphere."
The answer may come from close examination of hundreds of pipe-like structures strewn throughout the Tunguska Basin. Often 300 meters (984 feet) in diameter, Svenson's team believes the pipes are ancient volcanic craters left over after the lethal mix of carbon and chlorine gases exploded into the atmosphere.
Michael Reilly, Discovery News

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