Two hundred and fifty million years ago, Earth was emerging from a period of glaciation. The transition from icehouse to greenhouse was already stressing life, scientists think. Then magma began bursting through the crust of what is now Siberia. The eruption was tremendous, says Professor Elkins-Tanton. Over the course of maybe 1 million years, enough lava flowed to cover the continental United States half a mile deep.
The crust through which it bubbled contained vast coal and limestone deposits from an earlier time. As it burned through this fossilized organic material, it released huge amounts of carbon.
Today, by burning fossil fuels, humans are again releasing carbon sequestered long ago, and at a similarly rapid rate.
“There may be some pretty direct parallels between the end-Permian extinction and today,” says Jonathan Payne, professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.