Selective environmental stress from sulphur emitted by continental flood basalt eruptions

Anja Schmidt, Richard Skeffington, Thorvaldur Thordarson, Stephen Self, Piers Forster, Alexandru Rap, Andy Ridgwell, David Fowler, Marjorie Wilson, Graham Mann, Paul Wignall, Kenneth Carslaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

91 Citations (Scopus)
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Several biotic crises during the past 300 million years have been linked to episodes of continental flood basalt volcanism, and in particular to the release of massive quantities of magmatic sulfur gas species. Flood basalt provinces were typically formed by numerous individual eruptions, each lasting years to decades. However, the environmental impact may have been limited by the occurrence of quiescent periods that lasted hundreds to thousands of years. Here we use a global aerosol model to quantify the sulfur-induced environmental effects of individual, decade-long flood basalt eruptions representative of the Columbia River Basalt Group, 16.5-14.5 million years ago, and the Deccan Traps, 65 million years ago. For a decade-long eruption of Deccan scale, we calculate a decadal-mean reduction in global surface temperature of 4.5 K, which would recover within 50 years after an eruption ceased unless climate feedbacks were very different in deep-time climates. Acid mists and fogs could have caused immediate damage to vegetation in some regions, but acid-sensitive land and marine ecosystems were well-buffered against volcanic sulfur deposition effects even during century-long eruptions. We conclude that magmatic sulfur from flood basalt eruptions would have caused a biotic crisis only if eruption frequencies and lava discharge rates were high and sustained for several centuries at a time.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77–82
Number of pages8
JournalNature Geoscience
Early online date23 Nov 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2016


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