The greatest extinction event of all time wasn’t the dinosaurs. About 250 million years ago something caused even more species to die out in an event called the end-Permian extinction, also known by another name — The Great Dying. The Great Dying took out ninety-six percent of marine species and seventy percent of all land-animals. Scientists have been searching for the exact cause of this mysterious mass extinction for decades, but most scenarios they’ve come up with have been less than satisfying.
However, a researcher at UC Berkeley might be onto something. The most convincing theory thus far involves the large scale volcanism of the Siberian Traps that happened around the same time as the End-Permian extinction. The eruptions exploded 300,000 years before the End-Permian extinction, but were active for hundreds of thousands of years, even after. They oozed lava and spewed ash. This would’ve caused many issues, like global warming and localized acid rain. But how did volcanoes in Siberia manage to wipe out life across the whole planet?
The end-Permian fossil record shows that a global decline of forests at this time was coupled with mutated pollen. Something was making it impossible for plants reproduce. It’s been proposed that the volcanic gases from the Siberian Traps could’ve severely compromised Earth’s ozone layer -- exposing life on earth to extremely high levels of UV-B radiation. Scientists think this could have damaged the plants, potentially destroying the food chain from the bottom up.
Enter, UC Berkeley Researcher, Jeffrey Benca. To test this theory, he took mini pine trees, and put them in an extinction chamber. Inside they were exposed to extreme amounts of UV-B, akin to what would’ve been experienced in the Great Dying. He discovered the trees made malformed pollen and became sterile.