Permian Mass Extinction: A Still-Unexplained Calamity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Sixth Extinction" by Elizabeth Kolbert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What caused the Permian mass extinction? How long did it last and how many species did it eliminate?

The Permian mass extinction was the most devastating of the Big Five mass extinction events in the history of life on earth, eliminating 96% of the species. Scientists attribute it to the sudden warming of the climate as a result of the increased concentration of carbon in the air.

Read about the Permian mass extinction, its causes and effects on the animal kingdom.

What Caused the Permian Mass Extinction?

The Permian mass extinction of 251 million years ago (also known as the Great Dying) is considered the largest and the most disastrous extinction event in the history of life on the planet. It has resulted in the most devastating losses in the planet’s biodiversity, wiping out 96% of the species, both in water and on land.

The causational factor is yet to be fully understood, but scientists attribute it to the sudden warming of the climate and the resultant changes in the oceans. For unknown reasons, temperatures shot up as much as 18 degrees; the seas heated up and became acidified. Oxygen levels in the water plummeted, probably suffocating nearly all life. 

Possibly, bacteria that produce hydrogen sulfide suddenly multiplied in the oceans, killing marine life, and the oceans in turn released toxic gases into the air, which killed nearly everything else. Geologically, it was brief, lasting only one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand years, but it nearly eliminated multicellular life.

Permian Mass Extinction: A Still-Unexplained Calamity

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  • How humans have set in motion a sixth mass extinction
  • The 5 mass extinction events that occurred over the last 500 million years
  • Why human ingenuity might be able to save the human species from extinction

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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