Global warming is on everybody’s mind, if not their lips, these days thanks to constant mention in the news and a certain ex-Vice President. Scientists now say that they have found proof from the past that volcanoes helped cause an extended period of rising temperatures which resulted in an era of global warming as it reshaped the Earth’s continental outlines and wiped out many animal species.
The latest issue of the journal Science carries the story about intense volcanic activity in what is now our planet’s northern hemisphere, and especially in Western Europe and Greenland. The scientists involved in the study referred to it as a “planetary emergency” that wiped out between thirty and fifty percent of all marine life at that time. Robert Duncan of Oregon State University was part of that research team, and he revealed that a series of volcanoes erupted in relative tandem off the coast of Greenland and in what is now the western part of the British Isles.
These gigantic geological upheavals are almost certainly what pushed Greenland away from the rest of Europe and helped create the Atlantic Ocean where previously there was only a shallow sea surrounded by a land mass. Duncan explained it by saying “There has been evidence in the marine record of this period of global warming, and evidence in the geologic record of the eruptions at roughly the same time, but until now there has been no direct link between the two”.
Those are the key words, “until now”. Duncan narrowed the event’s inception about 55 million years ago, or roughly ten million years after the claimed disappearance of dinosaurs. The violent eruptions catapulted great quantities of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, and continued to do so for about 222,000 years. The direct result was an extended warming period that raised sea temperatures near the surface, where most of the marine life forms live, by about nine degrees, which is catastrophic to sea life over a sustained amount of time. During that time, the Arctic probably saw a temperature increase of eleven degrees, and the acidity of sea water also increased.
Duncan further outlined the process, stating “We think the first volcanic eruptions began about 61 million years ago and then it took another five million years for the mantle to weaken, the continent to thin, and the molten material to rise to the surface. It was lifting a lid. The plate came apart and gave birth to the North Atlantic Ocean”.
This period is referred to as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, and the scientific team made the connection between the volcanoes and the warming period by matching layers of ash in eastern Greenland with marine sediments in the Atlantic. The related greenhouse effect came from the eruption-released gases and that continuous lava flows heated organic-rich sediments on Greenland’s eastern side that wiped out life and raised the water temperature. In spite of this volcanic activity being directly related to atmospheric warming, such episodes are fairly rare, the scientific team said.
Some scientists were quick to say that the recent volcanic eruptions like that of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in fact cooled the planet a bit because they released sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere, resulting in sunlight being reflected back into space. They failed to give their thoughts about the increased volcanic activity around the world in recent years, however. The “Ring of Fire” which circles the Pacific Ocean is home to a large number of volcanoes that would be immensely destructive if they were to erupt at approximately the same time.
One need only recall the unbelievable amount of smoke and ash released by the explosion of Mount St. Helens in May of 1980. Multiply that by a dozen or so volcanoes at the same time and the events of 55 million years ago could repeat themselves, with humanity helpless to do anything about it.