We received so many excellent entries for Competition 2.1: Volcanoes & mass extinction! This question asked pupils enrolled on our Year 11 course to think about the similarities and differences between the current mass extinction event we are living through and previous mass extinctions through history, especially considering the effect of volcanic activity. The essays we received raised a lot of very important points about the effects of human activities on our planet; you can read the top five entries below!
Competition 2.1: Volcanoes & mass extinction
The Earth is suffering a sort of mass extinction right now, and many species are in grave danger of extinction. It is often called the “6th mass extinction”, and unlike earlier mass extinctions, it is the result of human activities. How similar do you think the causes of this 6th extinction are to the effect of volcanoes in the pre-human past?
1st place: Jack M.
Both pre-human volcanic eruptions and the ‘6th mass extinction’ are characterised by the unrelenting emission of greenhouse gases; resulting in widespread global warming, which manifests in the increased frequency of natural disasters. The volcanic extinction, however, was driven by a series of fortuitous natural phenomena. The environmental crisis today is being exacerbated by preventable human activity. If the rate of emissions continues into the future, the effects may be as far-reaching as those of the volcanic eruptions 252 million years ago.
Conventional wisdom posits that the 6th mass extinction will be caused by climate change, a result of humans burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, permanently altering its composition. This draws many parallels to the pollutant effects of volcanoes in pre-human past. Recent evidence has linked the Permian Triassic extinction event 252 million years ago, to a group of volcanoes situated on the ‘Siberian Traps’. The eruption released 3 million cubic kilometres of ash into the atmosphere, alongside mercury and other greenhouse gases, leading to an increase in the average temperature of 10 degrees Celsius. From this perspective, the pernicious emission of greenhouses gases leading to global warming and acid rain in our current era, appears to be history repeating itself.
However, the Permian Triassic period witnessed over 95% of both terrestrial and marine life on Earth becoming completely extinct, across a period of hundreds of thousands of years. Which begs the question of whether the intensity and duration of today’s environmental crisis is powerful enough to rival that of the ‘Great Dying’ and truly spark the ‘6th mass extinction. From one perspective, with temperatures being set to rise 3C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, this falls short of the sudden heating effects of the Permian eruption. Per contra, since the dawn of the industrial age the percentage of C02 in the atmosphere has been rising exponentially, from 0.021% to approximately 0.035% today. The rate at which species are becoming extinct is 10,000 times higher than the estimated ‘natural’ rate. This evidence suggests that we could be on the trajectory of a 6thmass extinction, if the current, unsustainable, rate of emission persists into the future.
To conclude, the physical impacts of the 6th mass extinction event and pre-human volcanic eruptions on the environment are similar, however their rate and scale differ. The 6th mass extinction need not be inevitable, and we have the power to prevent a Permian scale crisis from occurring, through a sharp reduction in emissions and adoption of carbon capture technology. However, if the current rate of emissions persists indefinitely, this will result in a conflux of vigorous natural disasters, destruction of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity- a mirror of Earth’s volcanic past.
2nd place: Freddie P.
Are the effects of volcanic activity similar to the causes of the current mass extinction?
We are in the midst of Earth’s ‘6th mass extinction’ phase. There are clearly some similarities to previous mass extinctions, but there are also key differences. I will explore these in this essay.
The most recent mass extinction was during the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago when a 6 mile wide asteroid struck the earth like a colossal cue-ball, wiping out over 3/4s of its’ inhabitants.
However, many palaeontologists believe volcanoes and an asteroid were to blame. They believe major volcanic activity led to huge masses of Sulphur Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide being released. The Sulphur Dioxide dissolved into the oceans and clouds creating Sulphuric Acid/Acid rain. The additional Carbon Dioxide caused global warming to increase tenfold changing the climate of the late-Cretaceous era significantly. Some plants and animals couldn’t survive which significantly weakened and killed many dinosaurs and other species. The remaining creatures would be merely just surviving. One more episode of climate change would knock them out completely, and that’s exactly what happened.
When the asteroid hit the sheer amount of ash and dust that was released into the air blocked out the sun and started a nuclear winter. The dinosaurs had no chance of survival as they were cold blooded and many became extinct. 76% of all species died. This whole theory has been coined the ‘one-two punch’ by scientists due to the sharp increase and decrease of global temperatures.
There are two other occasions where super volcanoes caused mass extinctions. The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction, c 200 million years ago, when 75% of species died, leading to the rise of the dinosaur, and the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, c 250 million years ago, when 95% of species perished after a massive volcanic eruption.
The effects of these volcanoes are very similar to some of the causes of our current mass extinction: greenhouse gases, acid rain and sea levels rising. For example huge amounts of greenhouse gases which were released by ancient volcanoes are comparable to the greenhouse gases which are being released from our factories, power stations and livestock.
The ash that volcanoes release is the same as smog and particulates which are contributing to global dimming which is veiling the sunlight and is the leading contributor towards the Ethiopian Famine of 1984.
The alarming truth is that we have become the metaphorical ‘volcano’. People are the key influencer of life on earth. Humanity’s negative impact includes: mass overpopulation, overconsumption of resources, plastic pollution, rainforest removal and general deforestation, and coral reef and sea life destruction. This is causing the current rate of extinction of species at 100 to 1,000 times higher than the norm.
In conclusion we are at the precipice of mass extinction due to our actions and inactions. We rely on clean air, water, healthy plants, animals, and microorganisms to supply our ecosystems, yet we are taking Earth for granted. We ignore the warnings at our peril.
Look out for the winning entries to the next few competitions, coming later this week! And don’t forget–the next competition deadline is 5pm on Monday 23 March.