An interview with Paul Wignall: How life on earth survived mass extinctions

Wignall jacketAs scientists ponder NASA’s recent announcement about the likelihood of water and the possibility of life, or extinct life on Mars, Paul Wignall, professor of palaeoenvironments at the University of Leeds, explores a calamitous period of environmental crisis in Earth’s own history. Wignall has been investigating mass extinctions for more than twenty-five years, a scientific quest that has taken him to dozens of countries around the world. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about his new book, The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions.

So why was this the worst of times and what died?

PW: For 80 million years, there was a whole series of mass extinctions; it was the most intense period of catastrophes the world has ever known. These extinctions included the end-Permian mass extinction, the worst disaster of all time. All life on earth was affected, from plankton in the oceans to forests on land. Coral reefs were repeatedly decimated, and land animals, dominated by primitive reptiles and amphibians, lost huge numbers of species.

What was responsible for all of these catastrophes?

PW: There is a giant smoking gun for every one of these mass extinctions: vast fields of lava called flood basalts. The problem is how to link their eruption to extinction. The key is understanding the role of volcanic gas emissions. Some of these gases, such as carbon dioxide, are very familiar to us today, and their climatic effects, especially global warming, seem to have been severe.

Why did these catastrophes stop happening?

PW: This is the $64,000 dollar question at the core of The Worst of Times. It seems to be because of a supercontinent. For 80 million years, all continents were united into a single entity called Pangea. This world was extremely bad at coping with rapid global warming because the usual feedbacks involved in removing gases from the atmosphere were not functioning very well. Since then, Pangea has broken up into the familiar multi-continent world of today, and flood basalt eruptions have not triggered any more mass extinctions.

What were the survivors like?

PW: Very tough and often very successful. It takes a lot to survive the world’s worst disasters, and many of the common plants and animals of today can trace their origin back to this time. For example, mollusks such as clams and snails were around before this worst of times, and their survival marks the start of their dominance in today’s oceans.

Are there any lessons we can apply to modern day environmental worries?

PW: Yes and no. Rapid global warming features in all of the mass extinctions of the past, which should obviously give us cause for concern. On the plus side, we no longer live in a supercontinent world. Flood basalt eruptions of the recent geological past have triggered short-lived phases of warming, but they have not tipped the world over the brink.

Paul Wignall at Otto Fiord at Cape St Andrew.

Paul Wignall conducting field research at Otto Fiord at Cape St Andrew.

Does this have anything to do with the dinosaurs?

PW: Sort of. Dinosaurs first appear towards the end of this series of calamities and to a great extent they owed their success to the elimination of their competitors, which allowed them to flourish and dominate the land for 140 million years. As we know, their reign was brought to an abrupt halt by a giant meteorite strike – a very different catastrophe to the earlier ones.

What would you say to those who want to know how you can claim knowledge of what happened so long ago?

PW: Geologists have a lot of ways to interpret past worlds. The clues lie in rocks, so mass extinction research first requires finding rocks of the right age. Then, once samples have been collected, analysis of fossils tells us the level where the extinctions happened. This level can then be analyzed to find out what the conditions were like. It’s like taking a sample of mud from the bottom of the ocean and then using it reconstruct environmental conditions. However, not everything gets “fossilized” in ocean sediments. For example, it is very hard to work out what past temperatures were like, and ocean acidity levels are even harder to determine. This leaves plenty of scope for debate, and The Worst of Times looks at some of these on-going scientific clashes.

Read chapter 1 here.


  1. […] Princeton University Press interviews paleoenvironments professor Paul Wignall on how life on earth survived mass extinctions throughout history. […]