March 21, 2013
Triassic Extinction More Closely Tied To Volcanic Eruption

Huge and widespread volcanic eruptions triggered the end-Triassic extinction

More than 200 million years ago, a massive extinction decimated 76 percent of marine and terrestrial species, marking the end of the Triassic period and the onset of the Jurassic. This devastating event cleared the way for dinosaurs to dominate Earth for the next 135 million years, taking over ecological niches formerly occupied by other marine and terrestrial species.

Itís not entirely clear what caused the end-Triassic extinction, although most scientists agree on a likely scenario: Over a relatively short period of time, massive volcanic eruptions from a large region known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) spewed forth huge amounts of lava and gas, including carbon dioxide, sulfur and methane. This sudden release of gases into the atmosphere may have created intense global warming and acidification of the oceans that ultimately killed off thousands of plant and animal species.

Now researchers at MIT, Columbia University and elsewhere have determined that these eruptions occurred precisely when the extinction began, providing strong evidence that volcanic activity did indeed trigger the end-Triassic extinction. Their results are published in the journal Science.

If you knew it was coming how would you prepare for a really really massive volcanic eruption? It took place in repeated bursts over 40,000 years.

From its measurements, the team reconstructed the regionís volcanic activity 201 million years ago, discovering that the eruption of magma ó along with carbon dioxide, sulfur and methane ó occurred in repeated bursts over a period of 40,000 years, a relatively short span in geologic time.

Suppose we knew the massive multi-year eruption was coming and it was going to be thousands of miles away from where you live. What to do? Dig large underground communities with sophisticated air filtration systems. Also, build large covered surface areas. It would be like building a base on another planet that is hostile to life. Except you'd already be there and with a lead time during which the planet was not hostile.

Lots of species could be saved from extinction with some planning and preparation. Could we save any large bodies of inland water from the sulfur and carbon dioxide impacts and acidification? If one could build large arrays of mirrors in space could localized heating of ocean to produce steam provide any benefit in terms of atmospheric cleansing? How to do geoengineering to reduce the impact of an eruption that spanned hundreds or thousands of miles?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 March 21 09:41 PM 

Engineer-Poet said at March 22, 2013 6:06 AM:

Covered surface areas only work if they aren't collapsed by the load; IIRC the Subic Bay airbase was rendered useless when ash from Pinatubo destroyed most of the buildings.

I suppose that one possibility is to "make lemonade".  If you have machinery which can take the ash and compact it into building material (and the energy to operate it when it's dark outside at noon!) you could build walls, arches and domes to protect assets.  You'd also have to shovel stuff off roofs before it caused damage, but that could go right into your block-formers.

Energy will be a big issue.  Anything that mucks up roads will muck up railroads.  Anything that mucks up engines will muck up gas turbines, which provide direct power for gas pipelines and also much electricity for the electric pipeline compressors.  Even nuclear plants will have issues with crud in the condenser cooling water.

The least-chancy option appears to be "get out of the way, preferably to the other side of the equator."

David Evans said at March 22, 2013 8:18 AM:

If you had many generations warning, how about a strict 1-child-per-couple policy? In 10 generations you could get the population down to a few million, much easier to house in closed communities or even space colonies.

Phillep Harding said at March 22, 2013 11:35 AM:

I've been working on this scenario off and on for a few years.

There isn't really any way to know when that sort of eruption (magma flow) will take place ahead of time, and one could easily start without someone noticing for many days. For example, there was a small flow about 30 or 40 miles from Juneau Alaska some time around 1915, IIRC, that no one in town knew about for years.

A large eruption would throw the world into chaos. Huge mobs would form around any construction site that looked like someone was digging in, and the mobs would push their way onto the site, needing to be machine gunned. On the plus side for those digging in, the mobs would soon die out without any sort of protective masks.

Eventually, there will be inter colony raids, with the loser being exterminated for their resources.

I keep thinking about those "village reactors" the Japanese invented a few years back. They cannot last long, but even a small one would be a start. The survivors would certainly drop all objections to the various types of reactors that are "not feasible" today, if they have the resources to construct one. Why do I suspect that any gov't project would soon be limited to powerful politicians, all too old to breed?

Randall Parker said at March 22, 2013 11:07 PM:


I see several strategies for making structures that will survive:

- Tall round buildings (I'm thinking like corn silos - or, hey, use corn silos) with cone or steeple tops. The ashes would fall off. The building would need to be strong enough to withstand the ash load on walls.

- Build into a steep hill side with roofs that the ash would roll off of.

- Canvas steeple: Very quickly add a steep tent top to an existing building so the ash falls off. Might just need a really heavy canvas material and steel or aluminum poles to hold it way up.

- Active means to take off the ash as it builds up. Could be human labor. You'd need really good air masks.

I actually think canvas steeples and other variants on that approach could work. Though it helps to put them up on top of an already tall structure so that the ash at the bottom isn't leaning against the base of the canvas tent. Could a huge sports arena get a massive tall tent structure built on top of it to guide the ash off of it?

David Evans,

I file all proposals that are of the form "Make the whole human race en masse stop being so stupid" under "Unless I'm totally ruthless world dictator with a huge legion of faithful ruthless followers this isn't going to work".

Phillep Harding,

My guess is satellites make small eruptions and flows far less likely to go undetected and that the amount of active processing of fresh satellite images goes up every day. Plus, early stage eruptions cause tremors that do not go undetected in many cases.

Mobs and predators: You've got to create your refuge somewhere the mobs can't reach. The overpopulated world is a key problem to address when trying to survive disasters.

Tom Billings said at March 22, 2013 11:55 PM:

If you want to prevent acidification of water bodies, then note that the Moon has *lots* of Calcium in the lunar mare lava mix. Mine it, extract the CaO, and throw that CaO at the Earth's shallow waters using mass drivers. The CaO will react to CaCo3 and CaSo4, and settle to the bottom, as it does now. The deeper waters have pressures that change the chemical equilibria for this towards acidification continuing. The high altitude dust from the CaO entering Earth's atmosphere will help in cooling the planet till it falls out into the oceans.

For finer control of the temperature variations, use mirrors sourced from asteroid Carbon for graphene membranes, coated with lunar Iron, Aluminum, Nickel and other metals, with 30 nanometer+ reflective coatings. Millions or billions of these can be very slowly rotated in orbit to either reflect heat onto the surface, or shield it from the Sun's heat, as needed.

Tom Billings said at March 22, 2013 11:58 PM:

Sorry, ...that's CaCO3 and CaSO4 in the above post

John Bensted said at March 23, 2013 7:14 AM:

Humans are a very adaptable creatures. Our intelligence is our trump card. There is speculation that a major volcanic event impacted the world leaving only a couple thousand of our ancestors alive.

All living creatures during the Triassic Period were, to put it lightly, idiots.

Ron Swenson said at March 23, 2013 9:12 PM:

First order of business, lest we forget, would be to get all nuclear wastes sequestered. In a chaotic world, it would be hard to find personnel knowledgeable enough and willing to get concentrated nuclear sources under control. It would have to be done before global warming got out of hand. A nuclear power plant without adequate cooling has been demonstrated. It is called Fukushima. A few hundred of those unattended would make for a long extinction event. A secret silo full of nuclear weapons left unattended for a few hundred years might similarly lead to planet-wide radioactive consequences.

Engineer-Poet said at March 24, 2013 8:05 AM:

Long extinction event?  The acutely radioactive substances last days to months; the longest-lived of the hot stuff has half-lives around 30 years and fades away for the most part within a century.  Further, it takes quite a dose of radiation to cause any measurable harm (chronic dose of over 100 mSv/yr in humans).

If there wasn't an extinction event at Chernobyl (and there wasn't), any such claim is pure fear-mongering.  On the contrary, wildlife there is flourishing.

Rod Adams says that plant operators would run plants off-spec rather than allow them to fail.  I'm not sure just what this entails, but if steam can be dumped straight to condensers the reactor might be run at 10% power for as much as 15 years with just the minimum going through turbines to handle the "hotel" loads (the "Lucifer's Hammer" scenario).  The immediate level of decay heat after shutdown would also be about 10% as much.

Randall Parker said at March 24, 2013 6:51 PM:

John Bensted,

You are referring to the Toba VEI 8 eruption 74,000 years ago. It was 2.8 times larger than the last Yellowstone eruption 640,000 years ago. A possible human genetic bottleneck at the time is controversial, at least according to Wikipedia.

Ron Swenson,

First order of business: depends on where you are and where the eruption is. If the eruption is in the southern hemisphere then we'd better find ways to keep all our reactors running to stay warm in the deep freeze to follow.


I'm thinking in a very deep cooling event we'd want to rapidly build structures around nukes that would be warmed by the nukes. The warming of the structures with a closed loop system would prevent reactor meltdown and also keep people from death from the severe temperatures.

Phillep Harding said at March 25, 2013 1:07 PM:

If we go into glaciation or a poison atmosphere scenario, it's pretty much a given that survivors will need electric power, and that pretty much means nukes. True, a small colony might be able to survive on coal, but mining it without getting into trouble with methane would be tricky. It'd be trapped in the tunnels. Kaboom.

A global warming scenario... I think power and fuel would be less an issue.

The world is a bit short on places that have small populations that are not likely to be under the control of some third world dictator. Maybe Beringia? (Basically Alaska north of Denali.)If there, then peat could be a fuel, and perhaps on of the smaller oil fields? There used to be a small refinery near (IIRC) North Pole that was used to supply fuel oil locally. Still, a nuke reactor would be more useful.

Randall Parker said at March 25, 2013 10:35 PM:


Powder River Basin coal is surface mined and even some Appalachian coal is surface mined. If a VEI 8 eruption happens on another continent my bigger fear would be a temperature drop making outside work too difficult. Would Wyoming be too cold (and snow covered) for surface mining? Would the trains still be able to run to haul the coal to electric power plants?

A VEI 8 in Yellowstone would cause a large portion of the US to become uninhabitable. The change would happen far too fast for many people to escape unless where was a longer pre-eruption period where the threat became clear. I'm less clear on how much time we'd have to adjust to a more distant VEI 8.

The Japanese do a lot of underground construction. In a severely cold world underground living would save on heating costs. But if the cold is severe enough won't permafrost make even 10 feet down very cold? Also, energy would still be a problem as would food.

Phillep Harding said at March 27, 2013 1:12 PM:

I pretty much assume any poison air or ice age scenario will require going underground, and underground mining of coal through connecting tunnels. At least for any shelter that needs to last hundreds or thousands of years. No place to get shingles to replace those blown off. Or paint. Anyone working above ground is going to need protective gear, and that is likely to be in short supply rather soon.

The tunnels will have to be formed as arches (IIRC, gothic arches are strongest). Either the tunnel has to be shaped like that to start with (chisel and micro blasting), or lined to support the overhead. Normal blasting sends long cracks into the surrounding rock and eventually some of them join up, resulting in part of the overhead becoming under foot. Tough on anyone in between. Micro blasting, a cave crawler technique, makes for shorter cracks and smaller rocks bouncing off skulls. Lining tunnels... That pretty much requires concrete as dry laid stone is not likely to work very well.

Randall Parker said at March 27, 2013 8:32 PM:


In an ice age scenario:
- We'd still have the equatorial region.
- The region below the ice pack would be like Canada or Alaska. We can operate outside in weather that cold.

You wouldn't want to get yourself stuck in an underground shelter under an ice pack.

In a temporary extreme cold period (say after a major asteroid strike) then being outside would be fatal (at least without some very serious gear) over an area which would not yet have an ice pack. Though I do not think that would apply to the equatorial region.

Poison air: That's a much more severe case posing much greater difficulties.

Tunnel building: I see those huge circular tunnel building machines to make subways and water tunnels. They do not blast, do they? Probably depends on the type of material they are tunneling thru. Also, in those cases they bring a lot of rebar and concrete down to make the tunnel strong? (I'm guessing)

I do not think we can do that much tunneling once the disaster is upon us. We won't have enough equipment and material to do it.

Phillep Harding said at March 28, 2013 10:54 AM:

Glaciers only form where precip falls and slide downhill from that. Beringia (north Alaska, Bering straight, east Siberia, was glacier free. There were other areas that were frigid but not under glaciers due to lack of precip, but most of these are, IMO, too close to present population centers.

Just recalled: The Aleutians were supposed to be glacier free. I was astounded by this as they are certainly wet. They also have left over WWII bunkers.

In case of an ice age, almost everyone will head south, making it pretty dangerous.

Tunnel digging machines would be great, but I understand they are assembled on site then scrapped or just discarded. They will certainly not fit on a flatbed on a freeway.

Underground colonies are going to need more room, especially after a few hundred years. People have dug tunnels using hand tools for thousands of years, and I think that's what will eventually happen, as power tools wear out and explosives run out. Explosives also create gasses that mess up the air captured in the tunnel.

A pumice deposit would make a great place to dig in, but limestone should work. Just watch for plumbing leaks.

Randall Parker said at March 28, 2013 10:19 PM:


Since going underground is so expensive can we make the surface more survivable? For example, I wonder whether we could protect large surface buildings from corrosive acidic atmosphere by covering them in some sort of coated tent material.

If the surface becomes really hostile then we need to engineer for it.

Phillep Harding said at March 29, 2013 10:25 AM:

Anything used on the surface would have to be repaired out of local resources. Short term (under 50 years or so), stored supplies will work. Maybe. Over that? Industrialization required. Well, industrialization would be required anyhow, but I think going underground would require less industrialization.

Back about 20 years ago, there was a discussion about a self supporting moon base moderated by someone in the space industry. Maybe some of those ideas would work on earth, but one big difference was the planned use of solar reflectors to provide energy/heat. Maybe an earth habitat could substitute a nuke reactor, but there's still the problem with consumables. Can they be replaced or something substituted?

(I think the above forum was related to the L5 movement, which seems to have faded out. Wiki has write ups on Lagrange points and space colonization.)

Asimov was supposed to have speculated (about 50 years ago) that an isolated human colony needed (IIRC) 800 unrelated humans to start with in order to be genetically healthy, and several thousand (5000?) to maintain the then current level of culture. There weren't many computers around back then, so the colony might need fewer today. Still, the consumables problem crops up again.

There would certainly be plenty of volunteers for the sort of colony I think we are talking about so there would be plenty of knowledgeable people to choose from, but the people with pull who could force their way in tend to be too old to be healthy breeders, and would displace healthy breeders, and "strong backs".

No matter how the colony starts, an idle (self selected) "elite" caste would arise, with all the fun things that sort of resource sump and arrogant @z interference bring. And then there would be the religions.

destructure said at March 30, 2013 2:03 AM:

I think you folks are looking at this all wrong. There's no need to save anyone. What you really need is to build a virtual "ark". Collect the genetic code for millions of people and as many species as you can to store in a data base. Then you'd need a way to jump-start everything. Make a machine that can build an egg with a genetic code from the database and "hatch" it in an artificial womb. You'd need some kind of robot that can raise babies and teach them the basics until they're able to take care of themselves. Once they're old enough to take care of themselves, grow food, etc the machine will "hatch" more babies. Between hatching and natural births the population should explode. With access to a knowledge base, civilization should be back to normal within a couple hundred years. The beauty of this system is you can build hundreds of virtual arks around the world in case some of them fail. And the population wouldn't have to struggle with living underground for 40,000 years trying to scrounge up food and energy. All you need is minimal power to turn on sensors every few years to take some readings. If conditions are bad it goes back to sleep. When conditions are good it wakes up and goes to work.

Engineer-Poet said at March 30, 2013 2:09 PM:

And if there's a bug in the system, there's nobody there to fix it.

This idea works better as a colonization scheme for exoplanets; if it fails, you can always try again.

destructure said at March 31, 2013 10:43 PM:

@ E-P

I didn't say everyone should drink cyanide flavored kool-aid. By all means, try to survive. But the triassic extinction lasted 10K years. If people can last 10K years then great. Otherwise, you need an ark.

Engineer-Poet said at April 1, 2013 6:47 AM:

I think it would take less tech to reproduce people for 10K years than to try to do everything mechanically.  I'm not sure if you could build an energy system that could run for 10K or even 100 years without maintenance, but I'm sure it's easier to manage with busy hands on the scene than without.

Gene banks would still be necessary, of course.  Otherwise you will have too many problems with genetic drift.

Phillep Harding said at April 1, 2013 11:17 AM:

I think EP is 100% right. (Did I say that???)

Humans are far more versatile than robots for the foreseeable future, and we are much closer to having the tech needed for the colony than for the Genesis machine.

The human mind and human nature is probably a bigger threat to survival. We could convince ourselves of all sorts of weird stuff, or just go insane, and convince a large segment of the colony of something stupid that kills the colony. Or something that seems logical, that is counter survival. Need lots of colonies, far enough apart to discourage war but in communications, to reduce the odds on getting into that pit.

Low status people are likely to end up in the low/no light part of town, selecting for light sensitive eyes, albinism, or maybe even blindness. The whole colony could end up looking like ghosts. They might even elect to stay underground even when conditions above return to something that would support life. Again, a reason for multiple colonies, this time to increase the odds of present life forms being released to the surface.

Would a gene bank last 10K years?

Engineer-Poet said at April 1, 2013 2:24 PM:

Phillep Harding and Engineer-Poet In Full Agreement On Something:  Final Omen Heralding Armageddon.  Film at 11.

Thousand-year-old lotus seeds recovered from bogs have been sprouted.  I would bet that storage in LN2 would give at least a decent survival rate over 10K, and even if the viability rate of frozen embryos was only 10% their minuscule size would not make it a difficulty to overcome with overprovisioning.

destructure said at April 1, 2013 2:39 PM:

@ E-P

"I think it would take less tech to reproduce people for 10K years than to try to do everything mechanically."

We're not quite there yet but we're getting there very quickly. I thought that's what this site was about?

"I'm not sure if you could build an energy system that could run for 10K or even 100 years without maintenance, but I'm sure it's easier to manage with busy hands on the scene than without."

I've no doubt we could design an energy system to run thousands of years. Especially, since the energy requirements would be minimal. Regardless, if you're so concerned about maintenance then the ark could hatch a couple of eggs every 20 years as a skeleton crew.


@ PH

"Humans are far more versatile than robots for the foreseeable future, and we are much closer to having the tech needed for the colony than for the Genesis machine."

I agree. But we're not far off having the technology for a Genesis machine. I'm guessing 50 to 100 years. And once we do then the execution would be much simpler than a colony. Even if the tech were more advanced. Simpler means less to go wrong.

"Would a gene bank last 10K years?"

I'm not talking about storing genes. I'm talking about storing data. Researchers are already printing organs and tissues with 3d printers. I figure it's only a matter of time before they build a machine that can make a stem cell from a data file. Once they can do that its a simple matter of printing life. I can well imagine someone in 100 years arguing that to delete a data file is murder. That last line was a joke.

Engineer-Poet said at April 1, 2013 4:58 PM:

What I'd be concerned about is that the ark's hatching (or printing) systems would fail, which is the end of the exercise.

The problem with a "generation ship" ark model is genetic bottlenecks, like the hominids in Pohl's Gateway saga.  A gene bank would have rescued them, at least to remain at their best; so long as they had females of reproductive age, the hatching systems would likely not have been a problem.

destructure said at April 2, 2013 12:42 AM:

I'd be worried about the ark's systems failing, too. I agree that designing it to last 10K years is the challenge. But I can imagine cataclysms and ice ages so severe there would be no other way to overcome them. The thing is, you might not realize how severe something will be until you're in the thick of it. There would definitely be a risk of failure. Not only could systems fail due to age but there could be earthquakes or other things to destroy it. But it's not an either or scenario. You could look at it as an insurance policy. Moreover, a colony in the midst of a cataclysm would already be teetering on the brink. If it underwent an additional disaster such as a famine or plague then the survivors may need to draw on the ark's resources to replenish. Or I suppose one could program the ark to hatch some eggs if it doesn't get any input from the colony for a period of time. That way the colony and the ark would form a symbiotic relationship. The colony would maintain the ark. And if something happened to the colony then the ark would resurrect it. I think both together would have a better chance than either independently.

I wasn't thinking of this when I first commented, but Clarke's The City and the Stars has a similar machine.

Phillep Harding said at April 2, 2013 10:24 AM:

Redundancy would be a very good thing. (As in "several of both" methods.")

So would hiding backup.

And /NO/ linking all the colonies.

Engineer-Poet said at April 2, 2013 4:39 PM:

You know, with so much effort involved with keeping a cryptozoötic human civilization going, you might as well just put some colonies in space and carry on off-planet.

destructure said at April 3, 2013 6:37 PM:

@ Phillep

I agree with redundancy and hidden backup. Regarding linking colonies: I suppose you'd want the colonies close enough to help each other if things got really bad. But far enough apart they wouldn't raid one another.


@ E-P

I'm all for space colonies but the nearest star is too far. Our transport isn't advanced enough to pull it off yet. No other planets in our solar system are suitable unless they terraformed Mars. I think the chances would be better waiting out a cataclysm on earth than trying to terraform Mars in a pinch. If you have the resources then go for it. Otherwise, it seems like a "hail mary".

Engineer-Poet said at April 3, 2013 9:02 PM:

Not thinking Mars, more like O'Neill's Island 3.

Phillep Harding said at April 4, 2013 12:11 PM:

@dest, Partially to reduce raiding, but also to reduce danger from disease, blowouts, riots, insane prophets, etc.

Randall Parker said at April 4, 2013 9:44 PM:

If conditions on the Earth's surface become too poisonous to plants and prevent farming and forests I do not see that as a reason to totally move underground. I think it would make more sense to build greenhouses. Even if sustained volcanic eruptions made the rain too acidic we could still make use of the sunlight. We could even make use of filtered rain.

I do not see off-planet living as feasible for decades. In the next few decades colonists aren't going to be able to survive on Mars in the absence of a fully functioning civilization on Earth. For the amount of resources it would take to establish a sustainable Mars colony for, say, 10000 people we could create massive surface structures and underground structures on Earth that would allow millions of people to survive a sustained volcanic eruption or the aftermath of a massive asteroid strike.

Phillep Harding said at April 5, 2013 10:02 AM:

Maybe not totally underground, but supplies of consumables need to be renewed, and on a thousands of years scale, anything exposed to the atmo is going to be a consumable.

Well, darned little would not be a consumable, above or below ground.

The most vital, and shortest lasting, consumable would be enviro suits, IMO. Can't patch the outside if there is no way to protect a worker from what's out there. Even someone volunteering for a suicide mission has to live long enough to get /something/ done.

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