The Epic Siberian Journey to Solve a Mass Extinction Mystery

A quarter-billion years ago, huge volcanic eruptions burned coal, leading to the worst extinction in Earth’s history. Here’s how scientists hunted down the evidence.
aerial of a Lake in Siberia
Researchers trekked into Siberia to find hard evidence that the Permian-Triassic extinction was the consequence of explosive volcanic eruptions and the ensuing global warming.COURTESY OF LINDY ELKINS-TANTON

SOME 250 MILLION years ago, the organisms of Earth were having a very bad time—the very worst time, you might say. The Permian-Triassic extinction event was unfolding, in which 70 percent of land species and 96 percent of marine species disappeared. Runaway global warming had raised equatorial ocean temperatures to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The seas rapidly acidified, so shelled critters struggled to build their protective homes. Indeed, the fossil record shows these species got it the worst—strong evidence that the extinction’s culprit was CO2 mucking with the oceans’ pH balance, and the rest of the planet, for that matter. Every decade or so, ozone-eating gases would dissolve Earth’s protective layer in the sky, irradiating plants and animals, before the ozone layer closed up. This happened again and again, allowing periodic blasts of extreme radiation to bombard the planet.

One long-standing hypothesis for the cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction, also known as the Great Dying, will sound worryingly familiar to us modern humans: the large-scale burning of coal. Only such a catastrophe, scientists reckoned, had the power to transform Earth so radically in such a short period of time; the fossil record indicates that species weren’t dying off en masse over millions of years, or hundreds of thousands of years, but tens of thousands of years. A carbon-spewing volcanic event alone—even the biggest of booms—couldn’t explain such a cataclysm. And there’s no evidence of an asteroid strike in this period, like the one that would kill off the dinosaurs 190 million years later.

It’s a juicy theory. The only problem is that scientists didn’t have the hard evidence to prove a massive combustion of coal did all those species in. But they knew where to look: in what we now call Siberia, a frigid expanse of land that 250 million years ago was anything but chilly, because it was flooded with lava. Volcanoes pumped out so much planetary goop that the stuff could have covered the entire continental United States a half-mile deep. And unfortunately for all life on Earth, scientists suspected, the lava was flash-incinerating vast deposits of coal and ejecting massive quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.


Kim Jong Un tells N. Korea military to keep “full-combat posture” after second missile launch in week

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has told his military to maintain a “full-combat posture” as tensions continue to rise with the U.S. His order follows the firing of three missiles Thursday, the second missile launch in a week.

North Korea says the test was part of its regular military training. South Korea claims they may be part of a new weapons system. As North Korean missile tests go, CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer says Thursday’s was less a show of force than an attempt to grab attention.

North Korean state media released pictures Friday morning showing a gleeful Kim apparently watching those missile launches — the second such drill he had observed in five days.

North Korea’s state media avoided specifying what the weapons were, but the U.S. military says they were three short-range ballistic missiles.


President Trump said it was not enough to ruin his relationship with Kim Jung Un.

“They were smaller missiles, they’re short range missiles,” President Trump said. “Nobody’s happy about it, but we’re taking a good look and we’ll see, we’ll see. The relationship continues, but we’ll see what happens.”

But the missile launches of the past week have been the first since 2017, and a sure sign that Kim is becoming frustrated after the last summit with President Trump collapsed.

Analyst Thomas Sanderson says the launches won’t be enough of a provocation to derail future talks.

“They certainly are not going to prevent another summit; it’s not as if it is an intercontinental range missile and it’s not the testing of a nuclear warhead,” Sanderson said. “These are the two elements that Kim Jong Un promised he would put a moratorium on.”

Technically that moratorium still holds, but Kim has already warned the U.S. to change its position, or there will be no third summit with Mr. Trump.

Ratcheting up tensions between the countries even further, the U.S. revealed Thursday that it had seized a huge North Korean cargo ship off the coast of Indonesia.

The 17,000 ton ship, called the “Wise Honest,” was caught carrying North Korean coal for export — in direct defiance of international sanctions. Its seizure shows U.S. resolve to cut off North Korean trade that might fund its nuclear program.

China’s greenhouse gas emissions rising, undermining Xi’s climate push

Hong Kong (CNN)Chinese methane emissions are rising at an alarming rate despite recent government regulations aimed at curbing the climate-changing pollutant, a new report has revealed.

A study released in the journal Nature on Tuesday shows a steady growth in China’s methane emissions, primarily from the country’s massive coal mining sector, undermining Beijing’s claims to be leading the world on climate change action.
“Methane emissions in China appear to be increasing, business as usual. We were unable to detect any impact of regulations on the country’s methane emissions,” the report’s lead researcher Scot M. Miller told CNN.
China is among the world’s largest emitters of methane. While methane is less prevalent in the earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it traps “28 times more heat” according to the Global Carbon Project.
In 2010 the Chinese government enacted a series of new polices requiring methane from coal mining to be captured, or to be converted into carbon dioxide.
But scientists found that the policies had failed to curb overall emissions.

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US carbon emissions on the rise again 06:24
Using data from Japanese satellites collected between 2010 and 2010, the study found China’s annual methane emissions increased by 50% for at least five years after government regulations were passed in 2010. The jump is equivalent to the total emissions of other large nations such as Russia and Brazil.
“China has had great ambitions for capturing that methane and using it for electricity production or heating buildings, but what we found is that there’s little evidence that they’ve been able to meet those ambitions,” Miller told CNN.
China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal. The country’s continued reliance on the fossil fuel has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.
President Xi Jinping has placed a huge emphasis on tackling pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in his second term in office, making it one of his “three battles” in 2017.
State-run media has been making a big show of broadcasting punishments against officials caught violating environmental laws, with 32 people detained in November after inspections of ten provinces.
In fact, following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change agreement in 2017, questions were raised over whether Beijing was now the leading nation on tackling climate change.
Asked about China’s climate change commitments in November, Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate change special envoy, said it was the country’s responsibility to deliver on their promises “to protect humanity and the earth.”
“By the end of 2017, China’s carbon intensity had already fallen by 46%, meaning that it has achieved its goal three years ahead of schedule. Renewable energy already accounts for 13.8% of primary energy consumption and will surely meet the goal of 15% by 2020,” Xie said.
Miller conceded that his research only extended to 2015, meaning that stricter regulations enforced by Xi may yet to be reflected in the data.
“In terms of methane, China’s emissions are so much larger than any other country that anything they could do to mitigate their emissions could have a substantial impact on overall methane levels in the atmosphere,” he said.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accelerate Like a ‘Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018

Daytime traffic amid smog in Beijing on Sunday. China produces 27 percent of global carbon emissions, the most of any country.CreditWu Hong/EPA, via Shutterstock
Daytime traffic amid smog in Beijing on Sunday. China produces 27 percent of global carbon emissions, the most of any country.CreditCreditWu Hong/EPA, via Shutterstock

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Greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are growing at an accelerating pace this year, researchers said Wednesday, putting the world on track to face some of the most severe consequences of global warming sooner than expected.

Scientists described the quickening rate of carbon dioxide emissions in stark terms, comparing it to a “speeding freight train” and laying part of the blame on an unexpected surge in the appetite for oil as people around the world not only buy more cars but also drive them farther than in the past — more than offsetting any gains from the spread of electric vehicles.

“We’ve seen oil use go up five years in a row,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford and an author of one of two studies published Wednesday. “That’s really surprising.”

Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018, according to the new research, which was published by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 100 scientists from more than 50 academic and research institutions and one of the few organizations to comprehensively examine global emissions numbers. Emissions rose 1.6 percent last year, the researchers said, ending a three-year plateau.

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Reducing carbon emissions is central to stopping global warming. Three years ago nearly 200 nations hammered out the Paris Agreement with a goal of holding warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (two degrees Celsius) over preindustrial levels.

Avoiding that threshold — already considered challenging — is viewed as a way to stave off some of the worst effects of climate change, like melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. For the Paris goals to be met, scientists say, global emissions from power plants, factories, cars and trucks, as well as those from deforestation, would need to swiftly begin declining to zero.

President Trump, however, has vowed to pull the United States out of the accord and has moved to roll back Obama-era regulationsdesigned to limit emissions from vehicle tailpipes and power-plant smokestacks. On Tuesday he wrote on Twitter that the Paris Agreement was “fatally flawed” because its system of voluntary pledges let other countries off the hook, adding that “American taxpayers — and American workers — shouldn’t pay to clean up others countries’ pollution.”

An American withdrawal would represent a serious blow to the pact. The United States, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, is responsible for a third of all human-caused carbon emissions to date, more than any other country. China is now the largest emitter of heat-trapping gases.

The new report comes as delegates from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Poland to debate their next steps under the Paris climate agreement. Many nations haven’t been meeting their self-imposed targets.

The new assessment is the third major scientific report in recent months to send a message that the world is failing to make sufficient progress to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Last month the White House published findings by 13 federal agenciespredicting that global warming could knock hundreds of billions of dollars off the size of the American economy by century’s end, particularly by disrupting trade and agriculture. And in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations scientific group, issued an alarming report warning that emissions are rising at a rate that will open the door to widespread food shortages, wildfires, coastal flooding and population displacement by 2040.

As part of the latest report, scientists wrote Wednesday in the journal Nature that the recent rise in global emissions, combined with other factors such as natural temperature fluctuations, could bring those dire consequences a decade sooner, by 2030.

“For those of us that work in this space, seeing the rates of emissions accelerate is deeply dismaying, and it confirms the very clear lack of systemic action and change that we’re seeing across many lines of state, national and global organization,” said Sarah E. Myhre, a research associate at the University of Washington who was not involved in the studies.

“It just means that the problem will be harder to fix down the line,” she said. “We’re continuing to buck-pass this problem to our kids and our future selves.”

The analysis found that the world is on pace to release a record 37.1 gigatons of planet-warming emissions in 2018, led in large part by China, the United States and India. That is roughly 100,000 times the weight of the Empire State Building.

Even as coal has fallen out of favor in some markets, the rise in emissions has been driven by stronger demand for natural gas and oil, scientists said. And even as the use of renewable energy like solar and wind power has expanded exponentially, it has not been enough to offset the increased use of fossil fuels.

“We thought oil use had peaked in the U.S. and Europe 15 years ago,” Dr. Jackson said. “The cheap gasoline prices, bigger cars and people driving more miles are boosting oil use at rates that none of us expected.”

More investment will be needed in the transportation sector to cut pollution, said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science and policy at the University of East Anglia and lead author of one of the new studies. “We have electric cars, but we need charging points, we need to lower the costs of electric vehicles,” she said.


1:18Why Trump Is Taking On Car Emission Rules
President Trump and the E.P.A. are scaling back Obama-era rules for U.S. automakers on greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s the breakdown.Published OnCreditCreditMark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

China produces 27 percent of global emissions, according to the report. The United States accounts for 15 percent of emissions, the European Union 10 percent and India 7 percent.

China’s emissions are projected to rise 4.7 percent in 2018, the report said. The country is stimulating manufacturing to counterbalance its slowing economy, allowing more coal-based manufacturing that it had avoided in the past, Dr. Jackson said.

China is investing heavily in renewable energy, but it is also building new coal-fired power plants at home and planning others in new markets such as sub-Saharan Africa.

United States emissions are expected to rise 2.5 percent this year after several years of declines, and despite a shift away from coal toward cleaner sources of energy. Dr. Jackson attributed part of the increase this year to a colder-than-normal winter in some parts of the country and a hotter summer in other parts, which inflated demand for heating and cooling.

In India, a projected emissions increase of 6.3 percent is linked to the country’s effort to provide electricity to 300 million people who currently lack it.

Last year, extreme weather disasters cost the United States a record $306 billion.

Dr. Jackson said the new report was “not good news,” but added that it still contained “some glimmers of hope,” particularly about air pollution associated with the burning of coal for fuel. “Coal use has dropped 40 percent in the United States, replaced by natural gas and renewables,” he said. “That’s saving lives as well as helping the climate problem.”

Climate change: ‘World at crossroads’ warning as key talks begin

Media captionClimate change: How 1.5C could change the world

Four senior figures behind efforts to limit climate change have warned that the planet “is at a crossroads” as key talks opened a day early in Poland.

In a rare move, four former presidents of the United Nations-sponsored talks called for decisive action.

The meeting in Katowice is the most critical on climate change since the 2015 Paris agreement.

Experts say that drastic cuts in emissions will be needed if the world is to reach targets agreed in Paris.

Negotiators at the COP24 conference convened a day early because they are under pressure to make progress.

What’s so different about this meeting?

This Conference of the Parties (COP) is the first to be held since the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C came out in October.

The IPCC stated that to keep to the 1.5C goal, governments would have to slash emissions of greenhouse gases by 45% by 2030.

But a recent study showed that CO2 emissions are on the rise again after stalling for four years.

In an unprecedented move, four former UN climate talks presidents issued a statement on Sunday, calling for urgent action.

They say “decisive action in the next two years will be crucial”.

“What ministers and other leaders say and do in Katowice at COP24 will help determine efforts for years to come and either bring the world closer to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement – including protecting those most vulnerable to climate change – or push action further down the road.

“Any delay will only make it harder and more expensive to respond to climate change.”

The statement was issued by Frank Bainimarama of Fiji, Salaheddine Mezouar of Morocco, Laurent Fabius of France and Manuel Pulgar Vidal of Peru.

Meanwhile, the gap between what countries say they are doing and what needs to be done has never been wider.

“The IPCC report made crystal clear that every bit of warming matters, especially for the least developed countries,” said Gebru Jember Endalew, who chairs the group of poorest nations in the negotiations.

“It also gave some hope by confirming that limiting global warming to 1.5C is still possible. Here in Katowice, we must work constructively together to ensure that goal can become a reality.”

In fact, so urgent is the task that some negotiators started their meetings on Sunday, a day before the official start.

Why is Sir David Attenborough attending?

The celebrated broadcaster and naturalist will be sitting in what’s termed the “people’s seat” at these talks.

Media captionSir David Attenborough: Climate change is “the biggest threat to this planet in thousands of years”

The idea is for the occupant to represent the millions of people around the world who are being affected by climate change.

At the opening ceremony, politicians will hear Sir David give a speech made up of climate change comments submitted by the public.

Will global leaders be attending?

Yes, some 29 heads of state and government are due to give statements at the opening of the meeting.

The number is way down on the stellar cast that turned up in Paris in 2015, which perhaps indicates that many are seeing this as more a technical stage on the road to tackling climate change than a big bang moment.

But for the likes of China and the EU, the meeting is critical. They will want to show that international co-operation can still work even in the age of President Trump.

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How years compare with the 20th Century average

Short presentational grey line

So will cutting carbon be the main focus of the meeting?

Rather than spending all their time working on how to increase ambitions to cut carbon, conference delegates are likely to focus on trying to finalise the technical rules of how the Paris agreement will work.

climateImage copyrightFABRICE COFFRINI
Image captionA collage of children’s drawing about climate change laid out on a glacier in Switzerland

While the agreement was ratified in record time by more than 180 countries in 2016, it doesn’t become operational until 2020.

Before then, delegates must sort out common rules on measuring, reporting and verifying (checking to avoid the misreporting of) greenhouse gas emissions, and on how climate finance is going to be provided.

“The rulebook is the thing that will absorb most of the negotiators’ capacity at this year’s COP,” said Camilla Born, from the climate change think tank, E3G.

“It’s no surprise, as agreeing the Paris rules is both technically and politically a complicated task – but it is worth it!”

Right now, that rule book runs to several hundred pages with thousands of brackets, indicating areas of dispute.

Guide: Climate crisis - how can I help?

But what about limiting emissions?

Under the Paris agreement, each country decides for itself the actions it will take when it comes to cutting carbon. Some observers believe that the changed mood and the urgency of the science will prompt action.

“We are hoping that at COP24, countries will make declarations of how they will raise their ambitions by 2020. This is a very important moment,” said Fernanda Carvalho with campaign group WWF.

“Two years is a short time span for that to happen. Countries need to act fast.”

Why is the UN process slow-moving?

There is much frustration with the snail-like pace, especially among some campaigners who feel that the scale of the threat posed by rising temperatures hasn’t been fully grasped by politicians.

school protestImage copyrightHANNA FRANZEN
Image captionGreta Thunberg, who has refused to go to school in Sweden in protest over climate change, will be attending COP24

“Governments across the world have completely failed to protect their citizens,” said a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, the social movement that pushes for radical change on climate issues.

“Instead, they have pursued quick profit and big business. We need this to change. At COP24, we want to ensure that the focus is not just on getting the technical Paris rulebook as robust as possible, but also that governments do not lose sight of the bigger picture. We are not doing enough.”

Others involved in the UN process say that real progress is being made in tackling one of the most complex problems ever faced by the world.

“You have to recognise that things that negotiators and others have worked so hard to put in place are making a real difference,” said Achim Steiner, who heads the United Nations Development Programme.

“We have a $300bn renewable energy economy at work today – it’s not peanuts, it’s an energy revolution that has unfolded on the back of, yes, a sometimes sticky climate negotiation process.”

How much of a role will money play in making progress in Poland?

Many developing countries see progress on issues around finance to be critical to moving forward. They have been promised $100bn every year from 2020 as part of the Paris agreement.

Some are sceptical about what they see as foot-dragging and obfuscation by richer countries when it comes to handing over the cash. Negotiators say that moving forward on finance is the lynchpin of progress in this meeting.

“A key finding of the recent IPCC report, and one that has often been overlooked, is that without a dramatic increase in the provision of climate finance, the possibility of limiting warming to 2C (to say nothing of the safer 1.5C goal), will irretrievably slip away,” said Amjad Abdulla, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States.

Are there concerns the meeting is in a country reliant on coal?

Yes – among government negotiators and observers alike. The fact that the conference is taking place in a strong coal region, in a city that is home to the biggest coal company in the EU, is troubling to many.

Poland is highly dependent on coal, getting close to 80% of its electricity from the fossil fuel – and the widespread use of lower quality coal to heat homes, especially in the colder months, leads to smog and respiratory illnesses.

However, the Polish government says that it is sticking with the fuel, and has announced that it is planning to invest next year in the construction of a new coal mine in Silesia.

This bullish approach has drawn condemnation from some.

“We hope that the Polish government will seize this opportunity to embrace and promote a just transition that guarantees that the energy system is transformed while leaving no one behind,” said Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law.

“Unfortunately, this week’s announcement by the [meeting’s] Polish presidency that it will include coal companies as sponsors of the COP sends a very worrisome signal before the conference even begins.”

Will President Trump and the US feature at all?

Although the US has withdrawn from the Paris agreement, it cannot leave until 2020, so its negotiators have been taking part in meetings and have not obstructed the process. America is expected to participate in COP24.

However, given the President’s well known love of coal, it has been reported that the White House will once again organise a side event promoting fossil fuels. A similar event at the last COP provoked outrage from many delegates.

Hurricane Florence Releases Toxic Coal Ash in North Carolina 

Protesters outside a Duke Energy shareholders meeting in 2014.
Photo: Davis Turner Getty

Just a few days ago, Duke Energy, the largest utility company in North Carolina, said they weren’t concerned about the ponds of coal ash that might be flooded by Hurricane Florence. Now, at least one of those ponds has given way, releasing 2,000 cubic yards of the ash, according to NBC.

Coal ash is a highly toxic byproduct of coal power plants that is linked to respiratory illnesses and cancer. It contains heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium.

When one of the slopes of a pond at a closed power station outside of Wilmington, NC collapsed during the storm, Duke says that the ash within most likely flowed into their cooling pond, Sutton Lake. “The company hasn’t yet determined if the weir that drains the cooling pond was open or whether any contamination may have flowed into the swollen Cape Fear River,” NBC says.

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Megan S. Thorpe said the state will inspect the site as soon as they can. “DEQ has been closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable in this record breaking rain event,” Thorpe told NBC. She added that the state will “hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment.”

It’s likely that other coal ash ponds will be impacted by the storm. A power station near Goldsboro was flooded by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and officials say it will probably flood again. Another cooling pond at a plant near Lumberton, NC, is expected to flood as well.

“Unfortunately, Duke Energy has spent years lobbying and litigating and still has not removed the coal ash from its dangerous riverfront pits in the coastal area, some of which are in the floodplain,” Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center told NBC. “When a hurricane like Florence hits, we have to hope and pray that our communities do not suffer the consequences of years of irresponsible coal ash practices by the coal ash utilities.”

In 2015, Duke Energy were sentenced to pay a $102 million fine after pleading guilty to nine violations of the Clean Water Act for a record-breaking coal ash spill.

Coal ash isn’t the only concern for those worried about the environmental impact of the storm. Lagoons filled with waste from the pork industry and Superfund sites in the area could also contribute to environmental damage. Environmental groups and the EPA are monitoring these sites as the storm continues to batter the Carolinas.