Make the McKenzie Connection!

Guest Opinion

Some Summer thoughts about life on Mother Earth today. August 19, 2023

As I inhale the smoke and listen to the helicopters racing back and forth over the house, fighting yet another fire in the Central Cascades and McKenzie River Valley, my thoughts wander to the Permian Period of Earth’s history which ended in a mass extinction, and how this summer, with all it’s disturbing weather and environmental news, is reminding me of the conditions on Earth about 250 million years ago (mya) that brought the Permian to an end.

In story form, Pangea, the most recent supercontinent, attained its condition of maximum tectonic packing between 300 and 250 mya. At this time, it consisted of a northern part, Laurasia, and a southern part, Gondwana. Gondwana contained the area of our now southern continents—South America, Africa, India, Madagascar, Australia, and Antarctica.

About 300 mya Earth was emerging from a severe cold spell at the end of the Carboniferous Period (when most of Earth’s coal reserves formed) there was so much collapsing plant activity that sucked up CO2, the planet became almost completely covered in ice, causing a huge extinction. Over the next 50 million years Earth slowly began to warm from plant life in the oceans and on the land, starting the beginning of the Permian Period. While plants and animal species began to make a comeback, the same tectonic plates that had created Pangea, pushing all the land masses together, started to pull apart, building mountains and, uh-oh, a lot of volcanoes (think Ring of Fire around the Pacific but MUCH more intense).

At the onset of the Permian Period, about 298mya, the fossil record tells us that the plant life consisted mostly of ferns, conifers, and small shrubs. Animals included sharks, bony fish, arthropods (insects on land and in water), amphibians, reptiles, and a large group of creatures called synapsids, sharing traits of both reptiles and mammals, the largest fossil found suggesting 15 ft long, 8+ feet tall, and weighing about 10 tons. This was the first great dynasty of land vertebrates; the first true dinosaurs and mammals would not appear until the next geologic period, the Triassic.

The geologic record shows us that as the tectonic plates began to move and split up the Pangea landmass over the span of about 50 million years, Earth became so violent it is sometimes compared to the Archean Eon, about 4 billion years ago (bya) to 2.4 bya, creating another mass extinction as plant and animal life found it too difficult to survive. What was once a green and abundant Pangea became a mostly arid landscape as mountains were being thrust up. The ice and snow in the Arctic began to actively melt, and the oceans began to rise. Earth was in crisis, plant and animal species that were just beginning to come back after such an intense cooling period during the Carboniferous Period slowly disappeared. By about 250 mya, at the end of the Permian period, 90% of the planet’s species were gone. Less than five percent of the animal species in the seas survived. On land less than a third of the large animal species made it. Nearly all the trees died.

There are several thoughts about what could cause such a huge extinction, primarily over a period of about the last 100,000 years of the Permian Period. The final die-off appears to have happened fairly fast, as geologic time goes. There is evidence of a huge asteroid (similar to the Chicxulub 66 mya that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs) that might have hit Earth (the footprint is buried below Australia). But what we do know is this:

The rocks carrying fossils from the ocean at that time show stagnant water; a lack of oxygen, called anoxia. This, and other clues, suggest the lack of an ice cap could have disrupted healthy ocean currents that exchanged cool, oxygenated water with warmer, much less oxygenated water. It’s a bit complicated to explain here, but stagnate water has the overall effect of increasing additional CO2 into the atmosphere.

Volcanoes would have spewed horrendous amounts of CO2 (along with a lot of other polluting molecules) into the atmosphere that would cause acid rain. The amount of magma released in the area of what is called the Siberian Traps was likely enough to cover Earth to a depth of about 20 feet, for example. Large amounts of sulphate molecules, blocking sunlight, would have caused Earth’s temperatures to cool. Remember, all of this happens over a much longer period of time than it is easy to imagine. The truth can be untidy, but anoxia, eruptions/disruptions, and impacts together are grim prospects for life on Earth. The ultimate prognosis is the trapped heat from excessive CO2 (and methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and more toxic substances), and the inability of water, both fresh and salty to hold dissolved oxygen, is a recipe for collapse.

Now let’s fast forward to about 65 mya to the Chicxulub asteroid that we know for certain hit Earth in the area of the Gulf of Mexico, causing another huge extinction of plant and animal life, with much the same atmospheric and oceanic conditions created as described above. The creatures that survived were mostly burrowing animals, except for crocodiles and alligators (they “burrowed” in shallow water). Just a few surviving species in the ocean became tougher.

When the dust and toxins finally began to settle, a “quiet” geologic period ensued. Plant and animal life literally exploded over the last 50 million years. For the first time, mammals emerged and flourished. The first flowers appeared and brought love to Earth in the form of meiosis. It was a relatively quiet time geologically, and even though early humans were forced to deal with several mild ice ages over the last million or so years, we are standing here today, having created some very beautiful music and reached with our minds into a cell and all the way to the stars in our quest to understand nature and the universe as well as we can experience and measure it. And, we have wondered about the meaning of it all (this may not be only a human experience).

All of us feel a heavy heart when we read, listen to, and watch the constant news of fires, floods, extreme weather, and species going extinct everywhere. We see with our own eyes the desertification of once beautiful forests and hear of the plummeting of the ocean’s phytoplankton, both lungs of the earth. We have poisoned fresh water vital to all life with toxic chemicals and over-use and compromised the oceans with over-fishing, plastic, and acidification, for starters. So goes the land and atmosphere. And then there is the horrible way we are capable of treating each other.

Thus, it is becoming more and more obvious that we are now single-handedly creating the same anoxia, the eruptions/disruptions, and the ‘impact’ the Earth experienced 250 mya and 65 mya. We will take almost all plant and animal life with us, and we’re just starting to really feel the pain of it all in the last 200 years. A relatively short time, as measured time goes.

Very few of us take the time to study the Earth’s history, at least as well as we know it so far, along with the science that has warned us for years we are facing the same kind of conditions on Earth today as described above that removed 90% of all species. Many of us are in life situations that do not enable us to do so even if we wanted to learn, and some of us are quite knowledgeable and choose instead to look the other way for some kind of perceived profit.

Let’s set all politics and economics aside and just look at our situation from a biological point of view. In the last 500 years we have, for the first time in human history, created a world civilization that has chiefly prioritized opportunity, cleverness, greed, and profit, through a means of destruction of the very nature that has supported our every endeavor. We are still actively consuming every last molecule we can extract from the air, water, and land for our one-time uses, our entertainment and warfare, our vast infrastructure, and incredible technology that has taken us into space and the depths of the ocean.

Some of us have the opportunity to refuse consumerism in all its life-destroying manifestations; we can choose to live more simply so that others may simply live. We can decide to strive for the common good instead of alienating ourselves from each other, for example. Sadly, many who can make choices like this will choose not to.

But many of us are already in forced panic mode from overpopulation, violence, poverty, and pollution; there are very few choices of action available, and hunger and thirst are never-ending motivators.

Now, this summer, we are looking at real unraveling in every aspect of human life, and Earth has lost all confidence and is moving on, while she strains to be in balance for such incredibly unique (as far as we know) and wondrous life on this “Little Blue Dot”. Abundant life most likely will emerge gain. From our limited point of view though, and as we see in her history, not for a very, very long time.

Francesca Anton of Rainbow began immersing herself in music and science at the age of 14, when she began performing and also initiating the first Ecology Club in high school. Since that time she has kept learning in both areas of study, applying her knowledge as much as possible to improve her lifestyle and civic engagement.


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