Collaborative Research: Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction in Antarctica
This award, provided by the Antarctic Geology and Geophysics Program of the Office of Polar Programs, supports an interdisciplinary study of fluvial sediments in Antarctica for evidence of what caused the greatest of all mass extinctions in the history of life at the Permian-Triassic boundary. This boundary was, until recently, difficult to locate and thought to be unequivocally disconformable in Antarctica. New studies, particularly of carbon isotopic chemostratigraphy and of paleosols and root traces as paleoecosystem indicators, together with improved fossil plant, reptile and pollen biostratigraphy, now suggest that the precise location of the boundary might be identified and have led to local discovery of iridium anomalies, shocked quartz, and fullerenes with extraterrestrial noble gases. These anomalies are associated with a distinctive claystone breccia bed, similar to strata known in South Africa and Australia, and taken as evidence of deforestation. There is already much evidence from Antarctica and elsewhere that the mass extinction on land was abrupt and synchronous with extinction in the ocean. The problem now is what led to such death and destruction. Carbon isotopic values are so low in these and other Permian-Triassic boundary sections that there was likely to have been some role for catastrophic destabilization of methane clathrates. Getting the modeled amount of methane out of likely reservoirs would require such catastrophic events as bolide impact, flood-basalt eruption or continental-shelf collapse, which have all independently been implicated in the mass extinction and for which there is independent evidence. Teasing apart these various hypotheses requires careful re-examination of beds that appear to represent the Permian-Triassic boundary, and search for more informative sequences, as was the case for the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. This collaborative research on geochemistry and petrography of boundary beds and paleosols (by Retallack), on carbon isotopic variation through the boundary interval (by Jahren), and on fullerenes, iridium and helium (by Becker) is designed to test these ideas about the Permian-Triassic boundary in Antarctica and to shed light on processes which contributed to this largest of mass extinctions on Earth. Fieldwork for this research will be conducted in the central Transantarctic Mountains and in Southern Victoria Land with an initial objective of examining the stratigraphic sequences for continuity across the boundary. Stratigraphic continuity is a critical element that must exist for the work to be successful. If fieldwork indicates sufficiently continuous sections, the full analytical program will follow fieldwork.
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