Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Mass Extinctions Past & Present

UK scientist Paul Wignall on climate change & mass extinctions. Power expert Darren Hammell on risk of grid going down, for many reasons. Radio Ecoshock 150218

No doubt you've heard biologists and those darned environmentalists say we are already in the Sixth Great Mass Extinction. Animals and plants are disappearing daily. So in this show, we'll take a tour of a few past mass extinction events, with one of the planet's leading scientific experts on the subject.

Then we'll explore a more direct problem: how will you make out if the electricity goes off for a while. What happens when the grid goes down, and can we ease the pain?

All that, and the ultimate solution to all our problems, this week on Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

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Why did 90% of all species living on Earth go extinct around a quarter of a billion years ago? Was this caused by global warming? We'll seek some answers from our guest Dr. Paul Wignall. He's from the School of Earth and Environments at the University of Leeds in Britain. After decades of research and publications, Dr. Wignall is one of the world's experts on past extinctions.

Before we go into some fascinating details about the instability of life here on Earth, one quick question: does the study of the past tell us important things about the rapid warming humans are causing today?

Dr. Wignall says yes it does. A look into the record of the past shows us "how the world works", especially in periods of rapid warming and rapid cooling. "It's an experiment that's been run in the past."

Paul studied rock formations, and fossils in them, all over the world, from Poland to my own Canadian Province of British Columbia. But I notice particularly after 2006, most of his papers are co-authored with Chinese scientists. Why is that?

First of all, Wignall says, Chinese scientists were interested in the same questions. But mainly there are rock formations in South China which can read like a book of the past. He's done fieldwork with Chinese colleagues in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces.

His work has touched on a number of controversies raised by other scientists here on Radio Ecoshock. Let's start with your 2009 paper "Mantle plume: The invisible serial killer". What is a "mantle plume"?

Wignall says: "A mantle plume is a structure or feature within the Earth, in the Mantle. It basically refers to hot material that sort of wells up from the core, from the centre of the Earth, and sort of rises up to just beneath the crust. And when it reaches the base of the Earth's crust, it then creates a lot of vulcanism."

Compared to today's experience of volcanoes, these events were "orders of magnitude bigger scale eruptions". These volcanoes erupted along with carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and some other gases. Very little methane was in those eruptions, "but we think that the eruption of carbon dioxide triggers the release of methane."


Now I asked Dr. Wignall about the methane, because another wild prediction by Malcolm P.R. Light cited this Wignall paper of 2009. In the Arctic News blog, a chart purporting to explain why "Omnicide" would occur on Earth as early as 2023 was published. By "omnicide" I presume it means the death of all living things.

Citing Malcolm P.R. Light, a persistent contributor to the blog, this chart draws twice on the mysterious "Enrico Mantle Methane Eruption Anomaly". Actually, it's a chart republished first on Light's Facebook page, and then in Arctic News. The creator of the chart/photo is the reliable scientist "Goddessof TruthandLove".

A search for this "Enrico Mantle Methane Eruption Anomaly" finds nothing, except a previous post by Malcolm Light in Arctic news February 28, 2014. It appears he made it up.

That post in the Arctic News blog February 2, 2012 begins with this statement:

"During the Late Permian (Figures 16 to 19) there was a major global extinction event which resulted in a large loss of species caused by catastrophic methane eruptions from destabilization of subsea methane hydrates in the Paleo-Arctic (Figures 16, 17 and 13a)(Wignall 2009)"

So Light's source is supposedly work by UK extinction specialist and our guest, Dr. Paul Wignall of Leeds.

Searching Wignall's works, we do indeed find a paper with ominous titles about a mass extinction event and a "Mantle Plume".

(Wignall P; Racki G (2009) Mantle plume: The invisible serial killer - Application to the Permian-Triassic boundary mass extinction. Comment, Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology, 283, pp.99-101.)

But as you've just heard in the Radio Ecoshock interview, the Mantle Plume eruption was not itself methane, although it may have triggered the release of more methane. And in fact, this published Comment by Wignall and Racki was about an earlier paper by E. Heydari at al. Wignall and Racki disputed Heyari's theory that a massive amount of methane was released by a mantle plume event.

In other words, Malcolm Light cites as his source the very work by Paul Wignall THAT REFUTES LIGHT'S THEORY. Talk about sloppy sources and science!

You can verify all this by downloading a .pdf of Wignall's comments here. And then read the disputed "Invisible Serial Killer" theory of a mass methane release (by Heydari et all, not Wignall) here.


In 2012, Paul Wignall and his Chinese co-authors published another paper in 2012 that caused a stir. They suggested Earth experienced "Lethally hot temperatures during the Early Triassic greenhouse".

From the Radio Ecoshock interview, Wignall says: "We've recorded the warmest interval probably for the past billion years of Earth's history. It's in the aftermath of this huge extinction 250 million years ago. It seems that that extinction coincided with warming. And we think the warming just got even worse in the aftermath of it, and so produced temperatures - we calculated sea surface temperatures rather than on land. But sea surface temperatures approached 40 degrees Centigrade at times. Which is extremely hot, well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit....

You could just about tolerate having a shower or a bath at 40 degrees [C] but it would feel scaldingly hot. It's a bit sort of like the temperature of hot soup.

This is at the equator. We didn't say these temperatures were all over the world. But the equator temperatures were that and we think at higher latitudes the [sea surface] temperature gets cooler toward the Poles, so the polar temperature were not too bad. But certainly at the equator we think it became lethally hot. So it became impossible for many animals and many groups to live in equatorial waters

Here is the scientific reference for this work: Sun, Y, Joachimski, MM, Wignall, PB, Yan, C, Chen, Y, Jiang, H, Wang, L and Lai, X (2012) Lethally hot temperatures during the Early Triassic greenhouse. Science, 338 (6105). 366 - 370. ISSN 0036-8075 The full text is available here.

Note this paper was controversial. Some other scientists disputed it, including the team of N. Goudemand, C. Romano, A. Brayard, P. A. Hochuli, and H. Bucher. Read about that here.

But in our interview, Wignall says they are pretty sure they are right about this one. Here is an easy-to-understand article about Wignall et all's theory of lethally hot oceans, this time in the Huffington Post.

In an interview for Naked Scientists, Wignall said all forests were lost at that time, which is an amazing thought. And it was a catastrophic time for insects as well. He tells us about what happened to the trees and the bugs.


Author and paleoclimatologist Peter Ward has been a guest several times on Radio Ecoshock. His book "Under a Green Sky" affected me deeply. You can watch a video interview I did with Dr. Peter Ward on this page. Here are the two key interviews with Peter Ward on Radio Ecoshock, as audio files: "Under a Green Sky" (2008) and "The Medea Hypothesis" (25 minutes)(2009). This are still very valid and powerful today.

Dr. Paul Wignall published a paper in 2012 on "green sulphur bacteria" - the same agents Ward suggested arose in the oxygen-poor oceans. He wrote their hydrogen sulphide exhalations may have caused mass death in land animals. So this is more proof that this theory of mass extinctions on land is the best we have so far.

Note that the green sulphur bacteria thrive in oxygen poor oceans. We are already seeing dead zones pop up around the world, due to "anoxia" (lack of oxygen). Other scientists also worry that when the Arctic ice melts, and the climate warms, there will be less ocean mixing, and so more zones where oxygen-breathing creatures die off, and green sulphur bacteria replace them. The theory is that those bacteria breath out the very toxic gas hydrogen sulphide (aka sulfide) - which comes ashore in waves, suffocating land animals.

See this paper:

Richoz S; Van De Schootbrugge B; Pross J; Püttmann W; Quan TM; Lindström S; Heunisch C; Fiebig J; Maquil R; Schouten S; Hauzenberger CA; Wignall PB (2012) Hydrogen sulphide poisoning of shallow seas following the end-Triassic extinction, Nature Geoscience, 5, pp.662-667. doi: 10.1038/ngeo1539

In Wignall's work, I noticed these papers on extinction events are missing the so-called evil twin of climate change, ocean acidification. Wignall says that is because acidification is so hard to study in ancient rocks.

We cover a lot of ground, with this prolific scientist. Please download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Dr. Paul Wignall, in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.

You can also watch this interview with Paul Wignall on RT TV's show "The Big Picture", done in September of 2013.

Here is another scientific paper co-authored with Paul Wignall you may be interested in.

Song H; Wignall PB; Chu D; Tong J; Sun Y; Song H; He W; Tian L (2014) Anoxia/high temperature double whammy during the Permian- Triassic marine crisis and its aftermath, Scientific Reports, 4, . doi: 10.1038/srep04132

The abstract for that is here. Find the full text download here.



Though we barely heard about it, in January Pakistan suffered the world's 4th largest power blackout. 140 million people went dark, including the capital Islamabad and the country's largest city, Karachi. It was a terrorist attack, the very thing that has worred top regulators and power companies in America, and in every Western country. Could a major country like the U.S., Britain, or Canada go dark, and for how long? What can we do to prepare?

Our guest is one of the bright young men in American power. Darren Hammell is the Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Princeton Power Systems, a company that specializes in bringing rewewable energy online.

Darren Hammell, Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Princeton Power Systems

Could a terrorist darken a large area of the United States? Could it happen? A first effort already occurred in California. The attack on the southern California substation in Metcalf on April 16, 2014 appears to have been well-planned, and no one has been caught yet. Here is a Wall St. Journal article about it, and a Wiki entry.

The former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or (FERC), Jon Wellinghoff, has been practically yelling about how poorly the electricity system is defended against terrorism. Our guest Darren Hammell agrees and explains.

Then we have the spectre of cyber-attacks. Almost all of this equipment is operated remotely by computers. Acording to the Wall St. Journal, American power companies reported 13 cyber attacks in just the last three years. We also have the example of the state- engineered Stuxnet virus that went after nuclear power plants in Iran. A cyber-attack could even shut off dams in electric generating stations.

Another worry big in some circles is an electro-magnetic pulse, an EMP, from either a single nuclear weapon blasted off in the atmosphere, or due to a solar storm. If we had a so-called Carrington Event, the whole grid could go down, possibly for years.

Finally on our list of big grid vulnerabilities, we have those well known terrorists, the trees, the weather, and human error. There was the big Northeast blackout of the United States and Canada in 2003, that darkened 55 million people. That was caused when a single plant in Ohio went down. Poor switching and a fragile grid multiplied the impact to a quarter of a continent and millions of people.

The four largest blackouts in the world all happened in South East Asia. The two largest were in India, then Bengladesh, followed by the recent power loss in Pakistan. The India blackout of 2012 hit 620 million people, that's almost 10% of the world's humans. Hammell says that is partly because electric systems in south east Asia usually don't have reduncancy. Whereas there are many different switching routes for power in New England, there may be a single large power line carrying all the capacity across parts of India. When that goes down, for any reason, there is no alternative.

Find a list of the world's biggest power blackouts here.


Darren Hammel is one of several voices calling for more micro-grids. These are electric systems which can break away from the main grid, and operate independently if needed. For example, a university might have a small generating station, and the ability to have their own micro-grid. These are already being set up, in pioneering ways in several Amercian states.

I just saw an article about four homes in Missouri with rooftop solar panels and a microgrid. The project was built by students and set up by the Missouri University of Science and Technology. When do we move from the pioneer stage of microgrids to full-scale implementation?

The former prison colony on the Island of Alcatraz off the coast of California is another example of an independent power system. This award-winning system is solar powered. Interest in micro-grids in the North East of the U.S. has been growing since Hurricane Sandy.

Find out more about microgrids from this site, and from the US Dept of Energy. Or check out this explanation from "How Stuff Works" and this article from Technology Review.

I don't know if you are familiar with the work of Joseph Tainter, but he looked at the rise and fall of empires with an eye to fragility. When large empires become too complex, they break down, but they break down into smaller more self-sufficient islands, like the Medieval fortress cities that operated as nation states. I wonder if the new need for microgrids doesn't reflect an uncertainty about the future of big systems. Just a thought.

Listen to or download this Radio Ecoshock interview with Darren Hammell in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


Thousands of scientists met this past week for the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS. On your behalf, I attended a couple of presentations for the press. I'm an accredited scientific journalist after all.

There were two big stories from an environmental point of view. The first was a study that finally tries to measure how much plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year - and where it's coming from. The second predicted a greater chance of a mega-drought in the Southwest US - a dry period lasting decades or even hundreds of years. That's happened in the past, and climate change makes it more likely now.

Here is the link to follow up. And here is a popular magazine explanation, from Science Magazine. Maybe this is enough. Or should I contact the mega-drought authors to see if we can line up an interview?

As just a preview, here's a quick summary. By studying tree rings, soil samples and other data, scientists found a series of prolonged droughts in the U.S. Southwestern states, and even into the central plains. These long, long dry periods reached from California, where so much food originates, through to the plains states, where again, a lot of food is grown, or raised as meat on grasses.

The last big drought in that area was in Medieval times. So there are cycles, possibly related to ocean conditions in the Pacific, which can bring about super-droughts even without fossil fuelled carbon in the atmosphere. That chances of a long-lasting drought occurring in any one century are about 5 to 10%. But now with climate change, the odds of experiencing a super-drought in this century have risen as high as 80%. That's a very big chance that agriculture, and maybe even some cities in the Southwest, might have to be abandoned.

As one of the authors, Toby Ault of Cornell University pointed out, the glimmer of good news is the drought was not deep enough to kill off all trees. Otherwise they could not measure tree rings, in some cases going back thousands of years. The definition of a super-drought is not that there is no rain at all, but that precipitation of all kinds drops back drastically, for at least 35 years, and possibly much longer.

Even if rains come, a hotter world means soils let go of their moisture at a greater rate, as evaporation. Soil moisture is the critical factor for plant life, and for species that depend on plants, including ourselves. It's also key to replenishing rivers and water reservoirs.

The authors suggest that society build in planning and infrastructure for prolonged droughts, just as we do for earthquakes in some states, or for hurricanes in others. With climate warming, drought has become a high risk natural disaster.


Now and then, I get emails asking for more solutions. Fair enough. So this week Radio Ecoshock presents the ultimate solution. In this show we have Murray Reiss of Salt Spring Island, in British Columbia, Canada performing his stage routine called "4 More Planets".

I saw this on You tube here, but the audio wasn't great for radio. Murray kindly sent me a better recording.

Murray Reiss

Murray Reiss is a Salt Spring Island, BC, poet and activist with one foot in the printed page, and the other on the stage. His collection "The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild" was named best first book of poetry published in Canada in 2013 by the League of Canadian Poets. Murray performs as a solo spoken word poet, and as a member of the Only Planet Cabaret.

Next week we'll hear about climate change and crops in Europe. And famous climate scientist Michael Mann joins us.

Find all our past programs as free mp3 downloads at Please help support Radio Ecoshock if you can. Radio stations do not pay for the program. Listener donations fund my research, the phone calls, and the broadcasts. I count on you to keep going. Get the details here.

I'm Alex Smith. Thank you for listening.

We end this program with the song "When the Grid Goes Down". It was written and performed by long-time musician and composer Craig Anderton. I can't find a web site for him, but you can watch the You tube video here. Here is Craig's You tube channel.

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