Ecosystem resilience and recovery from the Permo-Triassic crisis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of Earth and Environment

Abstract

It is hard not to have a fascination for the Permo-Triassic mass extinction (PTME). No other catastrophe in history of the world was so far-reaching and all encompassing. Even the death of the dinosaurs does not look quite as bad when compared with the PTME because, even though these terrestrial giants were wiped out, lots of other things survived, especially at the bottom of the ocean. In contrast, no environment, no habitat and no location was safe at the end of the Permian. Death struck in the deepest oceans, in the shallowest waters, and from the equator to the pole. Understanding what happened during the PTME, ~250 myrs ago, and how life recovered is the subject of a new NERC-funded research programme. Called Eco-PT, it is a major collaboration between British and Chinese scientists.
The finger of blame for the PTME points to a giant volcanic region in Siberia. These erupted at the time of the extinction and belched out huge volumes of damaging gases. This included carbon dioxide which is thought to have caused dramatic greenhouse warming and lead to dangerously hot, oxygen-poor and acidified oceans - all bad consequences for marine life. What isn't understood is why conditions got so bad - there have been other giant volcanic eruptions that have not done anywhere near so much harm.
The project will look at the extinctions on land and in the sea to examine when and how these two very different ecosystems collapsed. Did everything die at once or did the extinction on land precede that in the oceans or vice versa? China has the best rocks in the world for such a study and intense collecting of fossils will help answer these questions. Precise controls on the age will be achieved using new, ultra-high precision age dating involving uranium decay in volcanic minerals. It is also possible that there was feedback between the terrestrial and marine extinctions, for example plant dieback on land may have changed nutrient input into the oceans and so altered plankton populations that normal food webs were no longer sustainable.
The potential causes will be investigated using the latest techniques. Thus, a new technique, involving analysis of molecules in fossil pollen will be used to asses the role of ozone loss. Other volcanic gases, such a sulphur dioxide may also have been involved in the terrestrial extinction and this role can now be investigated by examining trace concentration of sulphur compounds and their isotopes preserved in terrestrial rocks that formed at this time in China.
State-of-the-art modelling approaches will also be used to better understand regional and global climate changes during and after the mass extinction and to reconstruct the style of ecosystem recovery. Climate modelling of different scenarios will enable these conditions to be better understand and will help us understand the nature of super-greenhouse worlds with greater clarity.
The prolonged recovery from the PTME is also one of the most fascinating intervals of the world's history. Some groups bounce back quickly whereas others remained in the doldrums for millions of years. The recovery style varied greatly; some groups show an increase in diversity but not their disparity whereas others show an increase of both. What this meant for ecosystem stability and its resilience (ability to cope with further stresses) will be investigated using ecosystem modelling approaches that look at interaction between species and the interplay between form and function in terrestrial animals.

Planned Impact

The public and younger learners have long had an intense fascination in the topics of mass extinctions and giant volcanism, as witnessed by the constant media interest in the research results of those engaged in the field. We thus anticipate intense public interest in our research and plan a series of approaches to achieving this impact. Specific public-friendly, research-related materials will be developed, written at New Scientist/Wikipedia level and presented in a dedicated EcoPT website cross-linked with other institutions such as Bristol's Permo-Triassic mass extinction site. Our site will include activities and pages about extinction, recovery, biodiversity, Earth system models and contain media-friendly, newsworthy stories of our research outputs as they become available. Evidence of our skills in this field comes from continuing work in Bristol by the Palaeobiology Research Group (http://bristoldinosaur.com/, http://palaeo.gly.bris.ac.uk/research.html http://www.earth4567.com/), and the Lapworth Geological Museum at Birmingham University (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/lapworth-museum/about/object-archive.aspx).
We have also experience (e.g. Dunhill) of promoting resources for schools, which we will apply to this project. Thus, we will run a series workshops and provide teaching materials for school teachers, in partnership with STEMNet (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network), with a particular focus on mass extinction, resilience and earth-system science themes. We will also directly engage with the public through science fairs in both China and the UK. Thus, we will prepare a high-quality portable exhibit that will be combined with table exhibits for manned displays at venues such as the Edinburgh International Science Festival staffed by project investigators and PDRAs. Individually, investigators will also provide talks to regional scientific societies (e.g. Café Scientifique): the team contains some of the most active contriutors to such societies (e.g. Wignall, Benton) who have given 100s of such presentations.
Having prepared the educational materials, we will work with experts in public engagement within the host institutions (e.g. Kathy Sykes, Professor of Sciences and Society at Bristol; Alice Roberts; Professor of Public Engagement in Science at Birmingham) and existing support services (e.g. University of Bristol Centre for Public Engagement; University of Birmingham's Think: Public Engagement) who have extensive experience of organising public discussions and high-impact engagement events, and will continue to pursue such impact approaches.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The grant is investigating the nature of the mass extinction at the end of the Permian and if there is any differences between the extinction on land and in the sea. Using very detailed studies of rocks in South China we have been able to show that the crisis and extinction began thousands of years earlier on land than in the sea. We have also shown that the extinctions in the sea were not associated with a huge influx of sediment off land, as has been previously proposed, but that rapid temperature rise and associated oxygen loss was likely the most important stress in this environment, even in very shallow waters.
Exploitation Route The consequences of rapid global warming in deep time can be used to understand the future trajectory for climate in the distant future.
Sectors Environment

 
Description This award is part of the BETR programme and the principal partners are in China at the China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) 
Organisation China University of Geosciences
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The research team consists of a group at Leeds investigating geochemical evidence for ozone depletion during the Permo-Triassic mass extinction using the terrestrial sulphur isotope record, and a group using GCM modelling to investigate climate change during the same event. A group at Nottingham/Oxford Brookes is using FTIR technology to look for biomarker evidence for ozone depletion in the palynological record at the same event. A joint Bristol/Leeds collaboration is looking at ecosystem modelling/trophic network modelling to look at the ecological impact of the evnt and the subsequent recovery during the Early-Mid Triassic.
Collaborator Contribution Collaboration with Chinese partners (e.g. Prpfessors Tong Jinnan and Chen Zhong-Qiang includes contributions from UK partners to workshops in China, collaboration with Chinese fieldwork expeditions, especially to terrestrial and paralic Permo-Triassic sections in NW and SW China, visits of ECRs to China and from Chine to the UK to work in labs and collaborations in writing up results.
Impact Joint fieldwork in August and June 2017 in North and Northwest China.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Conference talk by Barry Lomax on Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits: aberration & mutations in terrestrial palynomorphs 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation at the 52nd Annual Meeting AASP-The Palynological Society Ghent, Belgium June, 30th to July 5th, 2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Fragile Earth: Science Night held in Worcester 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A public-focussed outreach evening aimed at demonstrating environmental science to the general public - another chance to demonstrate the mass extinctions for children game.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Giant volcanism and mass extinction, public lecture, Belfast Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Invited talk aimed at the public and attended by all Northern Irish students doing A level geology
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited speaker to the Gallagher Colloquium held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to this once-a-year science meeting held at Calgary University and aimed at the general public
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Keynote Talk on 'Mass extinctions and supercontinents' to the Irish Geological Research Group annual meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Keynote talk at Ireland's main annual geology conference
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Lyell Meeting 2018: Mass extinctions - understanding the world's worst crises. Held at the Geological Socoety, London, March 7th 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A one day meeting with invited and volunteered talks, with speakers from the US and Europe. The meeting looked at the latest advances in our understanding of mass extinction events and was convened by the project PI and included a talk by Benton (Bristol) a Co-I.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/lyell18
 
Description On the trail of mass extinctions in the Arctic wilderness - talk to local society (Craven Naturalists Society) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to a local society of keen amateurs in Skipton, North Yorkshire
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Talk and debate on mass extinction timing at the Gordon Research Conference, New Hampshire 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact invited presentation and then participant in debate on age models in geology and their use in mass extinction studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Talk at Hay Book Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation at the Hay Book Festival on Wignall's new book "Extinctions"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Talk by Matt Kent on Automated pollen identification with FPA-FTIR. at 21st Century Science meeting. British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham. 13-14th November 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk to acaemics to highlight the applications of the new FPA-FTIR kit at Nottingham Uni
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Yorkshire Fossil Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This regional science festival is attended by schools and the general public and held at Scarborough Museum. The University of Leeds had a stand and, of direct relevance to this grant, there was a newly-devised game, aimed at primary school children to illustrate the affects of mass extinctions and the concept of the species-area relationship during extinctions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017