PROGRAM - 2017 Eastern Regional Photosynthesis Conference

When sea levels rise as dramatically as they did in the Cretaceous, coral reefs will be buried under rising waters and the ideal position, for both photosynthesis and oxygenation, is lost, and reefs can die, like burying a tree’s roots. About 125 mya, reefs made by , which thrived on , began to displace reefs made by stony corals. They may have prevailed because they could tolerate hot and saline waters better than stony corals could. About 116 mya, an , probably caused by volcanism, which temporarily halted rudist domination. But rudists flourished until the late Cretaceous, when they went extinct, perhaps due to changing climate, although there is also evidence that the rudists . Carbon dioxide levels steadily fell from the early Cretaceous until today, temperatures fell during the Cretaceous, and hot-climate organisms gradually became extinct during the Cretaceous. Around 93 mya, , perhaps caused by underwater volcanism, which again seems to have largely been confined to marine biomes. It was much more devastating than the previous one, and rudists were hit hard, although it was a more regional event. That event seems to have , and a family of . On land, , some of which seem to have , also went extinct. There had been a decline in sauropod and ornithischian diversity before that 93 mya extinction, but it subsequently rebounded. In the oceans, biomes beyond 60 degrees latitude were barely impacted, while those closer to the equator were devastated, which suggests that oceanic cooling was related. shows rising oxygen and declining carbon dioxide in the late Cretaceous, which reflected a general cooling trend that began in the mid-Cretaceous. Among the numerous hypotheses posited, late Cretaceous climate changes have been invoked for slowly driving dinosaurs to extinction, in the “they went out with a whimper, not a bang” scenario. However, it seems that dinosaurs did go out with a bang. A big one. Ammonoids seem to have been brought to the brink with nearly marine mass extinctions during their tenure on Earth, and it was no different with that late-Cretaceous extinction. Ammonoids recovered once again, and their lived in the late Cretaceous, but the end-Cretaceous extinction marked their final appearance as they went the way of and other iconic animals.

Talk presented at the 24th Eastern Regional Photosynthesis Conference, Woodshole, MA, April 2007.

Around when Harland first proposed a global ice age, a climate model developed by Russian climatologist concluded that if a Snowball Earth really happened, the runaway positive feedbacks would ensure that the planet would never thaw and become a permanent block of ice. For the next generation, that climate model made a Snowball Earth scenario seem impossible. In 1992, a professor, , that coined the term Snowball Earth. Kirschvink sketched a scenario in which the supercontinent near the equator reflected sunlight, as compared to tropical oceans that absorb it. Once the global temperature decline due to reflected sunlight began to grow polar ice, the ice would reflect even more sunlight and Earth’s surface would become even cooler. This could produce a runaway effect in which the ice sheets grew into the tropics and buried the supercontinent in ice. Kirschvink also proposed that the situation could become unstable. As the sea ice crept toward the equator, it would kill off all photosynthetic life and a buried supercontinent would no longer engage in . Those were two key ways that carbon was removed from the atmosphere in the day's , especially before the rise of land plants. Volcanism would have been the main way that carbon dioxide was introduced to the atmosphere (animal respiration also releases carbon dioxide, but this was before the eon of animals), and with two key dynamics for removing it suppressed by the ice, carbon dioxide would have increased in the atmosphere. The resultant greenhouse effect would have eventually melted the ice and runaway effects would have quickly turned Earth from an icehouse into a greenhouse. Kirschvink proposed the idea that Earth could vacillate between states.


28th Eastern Regional Photosynthesis Conference

There is also evidence that life itself can contribute to mass extinctions. When the eventually , organisms that could not survive or thrive around oxygen (called ) . When anoxic conditions appeared, particularly when existed, the anaerobes could abound once again, and when thrived, usually arising from ocean sediments, they . Since the ocean floor had already become anoxic, the seafloor was already a dead zone, so little harm was done there. The hydrogen sulfide became lethal when it rose in the and killed off surface life and then wafted into the air and near shore. But the greatest harm to life may have been inflicted when hydrogen sulfide eventually , which could have been the final blow to an already stressed ecosphere. That may seem a fanciful scenario, but there is evidence for it. There is fossil evidence of during the Permian extinction, as well as photosynthesizing anaerobic bacteria ( and ), which could have only thrived in sulfide-rich anoxic surface waters. Peter Ward made this key evidence for his , and he has implicated hydrogen sulfide events in most major mass extinctions. An important aspect of Ward’s Medea hypothesis work is that about 1,000 PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which might be reached in this century if we keep burning fossil fuels, may artificially induce Canfield Oceans and result in . Those are not wild-eyed doomsday speculations, but logical outcomes of current trends and , proposed by leading scientists. Hundreds of already exist on Earth, which are primarily manmade. Even if those events are “only” 10% likely to happen in the next century, that we are flirting with them at all should make us shudder, for a few reasons, one of which is the awesome damage that it would inflict on the biosphere, including humanity, and another is that it is entirely preventable with the use of technologies .