Identifying a killer can be difficult when it seems like every murder weapon imaginable has been used in the crime, and when the victim is the entire planet. About 252 million years ago, a rich and wonderful world was annihilated in the worst mass extinction ever: the end-Permian, a catastrophe with no close competitor in Earth’s history. Volcanoes of a truly preposterous scale erupted in Siberia over many thousands of years, loosing all manner of chaos on the world. Rounding up, everything died.
Diagnosing the particular flavor of chaos responsible for this mass death has proven elusive. The Siberian Traps, now long retired as a vast swath of basalt plateaus in the far northern reaches of Russia, might have poisoned the world with mercury. Or maybe they destroyed the ozone layer by incinerating huge underground layers of ancient evaporites. Or perhaps they acidified the planet with sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, stripping vegetation, killing corals worldwide, and altering the chemistry of the planet’s soil so that dirt would have tasted like vanilla.
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