The Day the Earth Nearly Died

The Day the Earth Nearly Died

2002, Science  -   34 Comments
Ratings: 8.19/10 from 98 users.

250 million years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth, the land and oceans teemed with life. This was the Permian, a golden era of biodiversity that was about to come to a crashing end. Within just a few thousand years, 95% of the lifeforms on the planet would be wiped out, in the biggest mass extinction Earth has ever known. What natural disaster could kill on such a massive scale? It is only in recent years that evidence has begun to emerge from rocks in Antarctica, Siberia and Greenland.

The demise of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago (at the so-called K/T boundary), was as nothing compared to the Permian mass extinction. The K/T event killed off 60% of life on Earth; the Permian event 95%. Geological data to explain the destruction have been hard to find, simply because the rocks are so old and therefore subject to all kinds of erosion processes. It seems plausible that some kind of catastrophic environmental change must have made life untenable across vast swathes of the planet.

In the early 1990s, the hunt for evidence headed for a region of Siberia known as the Traps. Today it’s a sub-Arctic wilderness but 250 million years ago, over 200,000km² of it was a blazing torrent of lava. The Siberian Traps were experiencing a ‘flood basalt eruption’, the biggest volcanic effect on Earth. Instead of isolated volcanoes spewing out lava, the crust split and curtains of lava were released. And the Siberian flood eruption lasted for millions of years. Could volcanic activity over such a long time alter the climate enough to kill off 95% of life on Earth?

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1 year ago

Seems every mass extinction event in earth's history brought biological sophistication up a notch. So for a better tomorrow we should push a nice big space rock into the earth (you're welcome)

lu ross
3 years ago

permian crater was found on the East side of Antartica

6 years ago

Unfortunately this documentary is full of scientific holes, as most produced by the BBC for the past decades. Elementary high school and fundamental laws of physics does not agree with the best of the data and prolific statements of non quantifiable "values" such as "many" and "much" does nothing to enhance credibility.

Dantanarayana Visith
7 years ago

Thank you for the amazing ocean of information...the presentation was simply great and beautifully executed that it was irresistable.

10 years ago

How do you know it didn't ? May be it was born again. 250 million years is a long long time.

11 years ago

Way-ta-go cow-sized plant-eater! Way-ta-go.

11 years ago

Beautiful Documentary. Very informative and well-put together. I had never heard of this Permean Era. It's not one people usually bring up.

11 years ago

Does anyone know were I can find a version with English or Dutch subtitles?
I'm having troubles understanding this and I need it for school.

11 years ago

Interesting documentary on the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago and how the rock record was used to solve the mystery. The key mystery that remains though is what caused the original massive Basalt eruption in Russia?

Although traces of an asteroid were not found around the Earth, could the reason for this be because the impacting asteroid did not throw up debris into the atmosphere but rather was completely buried in the Earth during the impact event?

The deep earth penetrating asteroid impact event would then explain the origins of the large Russian Basalt eruption that would cover hundreds / thousands of kilometers. An event that would have fractured the crust for hundreds of kilometers providing an outlet for Earth's magma.

Then the rest of the chain of events recorded in the rock record took place as researched and understood by the scientists in Britain. An extinction event lasting 80,000 years in 2 distinct stages.

First event - huge release of volcanic gases from the massive basalt eruption that poisoned the land animals, then change the climate. First a freeze event caused by the volcanic gases and eruption dust blocking out the sun killing off all land vegetation and simultaneously the land animals. Followed by a gradual warming of 5 degrees as global warming kicks in from the increased levels of CO2.

Second event - the oceans begin to warm and in turn the frozen methane gas at the bottom of the ocean is thawed and released into the ocean and atmosphere. The release of large amounts of methane gas into the ocean kill off the ocean life. Released into the atmosphere methane is 20x more effective as a green house gas causing the Earth's temperatures to rise an additional 5 degrees or more.

What makes the above situation relevant to today is the exact same thing is happening today minus the massive basalt eruption. The warming climate is warming the oceans and melting the frozen methane gas at the bottom of the oceans. Obviously something to be concerned about.

Asteroid evidence questions.

Other asteroid events have not left the tell tale Iridium signature such as the KT event 65 million years ago. It just means that asteroids can have different compositions.

For instance the asteroid swarm impact event of 10,000BC to my knowledge did not leave an Iridium footprint, but did leave nano diamonds that have been found across North America in the geological record at this time period.

Other asteroid swarms have struck Earth in 3000BC and 2200BC and 2000BC, 500-600AD and 1300-1400AD. Again I am not aware of an Iridium foot print left behind.

Never-the-less an interesting documentary that was well written, well edited, and fun to watch. Thanks BBC.

11 years ago

lol im noticing Jimmy Spradlin Me, Mark Sutherland lol my manRicardo pAscel down there lol all of us guys loving these scientific BBC type Documentrys and we all have Music on or us playing instruments on our main profile pics. lol.. were all musiclly inclined on some level,. heh. there has to be somthing to having that type of mind and being attracted to these types of scientific Docs.. I LOVE EM!!

11 years ago

I realy enjoyed this. Some realy brilliant scientific theory hard at work here. Laid out in such a clear and magnificentlly simlple. The Narrator has a clear and easy to understand voice. And im suprised at how clear they went over every Hypothasis without makeing me feel like the story was dragging on too much.. GREAT B4 sleep relaxing at the end of the night Doc..

12 years ago

I'm sorry but saying one billion nuclear bombs going off is completely pointless. Nuclear scientist will tell you that after 100 million tons the explosion simply goes out from our atmosphere which is why they never made any bombs bigger than the one last tested by the US. I believe it was to produce 50 megatons but due to a miscalculation it produced almost 75 megatons.

12 years ago

Right when I saw "BBC" in the beginning, I knew this documentary would be totally awesome! And it was! The information was presented so outstandingly that one couldn't help but stay glued to the screen so as not to miss a single detail about what the currently thought culprit(s) of the P-T Extinction were.

I like how they presented the subject matter as a mystery story (mystery-murder genre) in which the killer(s) alluded discovery because of the lack of evidence and/or having the wrong suspect (the meteor theory that many wanted to stick with).

Just trying to imagine it totally boggles my mind. How epic! Epic, epic, epic!
These land creatures first see an orange-purple hue in the sky because an apocalyptic eruption is occurring THOUSANDS of miles away? The slow death of sea creatures due to the eruptions causing a 5 degree increase, warming waters? Then the sudden death of 95% of land life due to methane causing ANOTHER 5 degree increase? All culminating in an overall 95% extinction of all life on the entire planet? Unfathomably epic!

Now, were these mammal-like reptiles (Therapsids?) really our ancestors? Because that is epic too (if so, we may owe our very existence to the tenacity of these AMAZING animals to be able to survive what was essentially a slow drawn out apocalypse).

One lingering question I have that the documentary didn't answer (because it couldn't yet?) is, how do these rifts in the earth open up to begin with?

What a sight that must be to see. I mean sure, you would probably die, but what an epic scene to see before death! lol.

I think I need to read up more on this. Any good books?

12 years ago

"a meteor from space sounds like science fiction" no it sounds exremelely possible how could they say something so stupid. good documentary otherwise though.

12 years ago

dudes relax.. David Atenborogh is a sum of all things possum.

Emily 18
12 years ago

Great Doc Vlatko. The best documentry site on the net. Nothing better than sitting indoors on a cold winters day with a mug of soup and a nice documentry giggles......

12 years ago

Interesstingly they took their time using CO2 hysteria to get people started at the beginning of the doc (it seems nowadays you can't have a decent doomsday scenario without CO2). In the conclusion however, they leave it completely out of the picture. Maybe because someone might think that when talking about vulcanos, its preposterous to postulate the dominant problem is CO2. Wouldn't it rather be natural gases and water vapor produced by half a continent boiling constantly for thousands of years? Heck, thats probably what they thought themselves but there's nothing better than something you are already afraid of to get people hooked. I wonder if all these extinct species would have survived if they just had had the opportunity to buy enough CO2 indulgences from Al Gore and the likes of him. Coming to think of it, perhaps there were human like creatures like God of Truth proposed above. And maybe they had their own climate billionaire. Then what is happening know would be nothing short of Al Gore's second coming... lol

God of Truth
12 years ago

I have always thought about theories like this and wondered, what if human like creatures existed at these times and were wiped out. Our planet has been around for billions of years, it's not that far fetched to think that human like entities could have existed before. Who knows, if true they may have been more advanced than even we are. Think about stories of Atlantis, it is a very possible theory!

Peter Mertz
13 years ago

More provocative thoughts on the P-T Extinction Event…

One of the key facts to look at is the factors involved with the continent Pangaea. Most notably would be the very large area of inland area vs. the very small coastal area; which would lend towards most of the precipitation concentrating on the coastal area with the inland comprising a very large dessert area. Less noticeably but probably more importantly would be the very small Littoral Zone (neritic zone) in continental shelf region of the Panthalassa Ocean.


From Wikipedia

The neritic zone, also called coastal waters, the coastal ocean or the sublittoral zone, is the part of the ocean extending from the low tide mark to the edge of the continental shelf, with a relatively shallow depth extending to about 200 meters (100 fathoms). The neritic zone has generally well-oxygenated water, low water pressure, and relatively stable temperature and salinity levels. These, combined with presence of light and the resulting photosynthetic life, such as phytoplankton and floating sargassum, make the neritic zone the location of the majority of sea life.

Zooplankton, free-floating creatures ranging from microscopic foraminiferans to small fish and shrimp, live in this zone, and together with the phytoplankton form the base of the food pyramid that supports most of the world's great fishing areas.

At the edge of the neritic zone the continental shelves end, rapidly descending to the deeper oceanic crust and the pelagic zone.


Okay most importantly is that this is the area in which has the most nutriants and is highly oxegenaited; and there by suports the majority of photosynthisis on the planet. Any variation in the area of Neritic Zone would cause an exponontial change in the production of free oxygen in the atmosphere. So one could conclude that just the mere fact that the earth has one coastal region as apposed to several

Once that happens it creates a positive feedback cycle on global tempatures. Higher tempatures would lead to lower parciptation rates, leaving less area for vegitation and lowering the production of free oxegen in the atmosphere. This would lend to higher CO2 rates and that effect might be probably be exponotial.

It is quite possible the origional caculations could be off if the methodogolgy of the studies on Atmospheric CO2 levels durring the P-T Ex Event didn’t include these factors.

Peter Mertz
13 years ago

I am usually a space buff and shy away from paleontology how ever there is a very similar ecosystem environment in our solar system that would mimic the environment on the super content. So my amateur postulation in the cause of the Permian - Triassic Extinction event:

Mega-sandstorms - We know that the Pangaea was predominately desert, because there was relatively little coal (and therefore vegetation) deposits proceeding this period. So with roughly one third of the planet covered with sand, that would rival the land area on Mars surface (in fact a dessert in Chile has nearly identical conditions). It is quite possible the same forces that full the Martian style sand storms would exist to a roughly similar extent on the earth.

These mega sand storms could theoretically cover the planet on a regular basis and there for block out the majority of light for extended periods of time. The photosynthetic process of the food cycle would be thrown off for weeks, months and possibly longer. This would cause a Positive -Feedback with the respect the desertification of the planet. Vegetation would die off in large extent for long periods of time and that would radically increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

This theory would fit in with the rise of CO2 in the oceans and selective rates of extinction in the various species. Now the sand storms would have been the result of other factors and not be the sole cause of the extinction event, however global or at the minimum continental sand storms during this period would be almost inevitable. It is quite possible that a certain thresh hold was reached with in a very short period of that would cause mega-sandstorms and completely throw the ecosystems on the planet out of balance.

13 years ago

The earth is a hell of alot more resilient then people think. Before global warming was proven to be a hoax, we were constantly being told we were destroying the earth. Earth will always go on, even if humans dont.

13 years ago

The conditions that where necessary to start life no longer and will probably never exist again on earth. I love the way religiouse people dismiss theories without even understanding them.The same way the run around saying that all of this is just to perfect to have happen by chance. No scientific theory ever said it came about by chance, none that where excepted anyway. Evolution is driven by natural selection not chance, very different things. I studied theology and made an honest attempt to understand religion befor I dismissed it as fantasy and wishful thinking. Otherwise you are not rejecting the actuall theory or dogma, you are dismissing the opportunity to learn.

13 years ago

Why would life dying off ever put an end to life on Earth. What about the start of life is there that couldn't be recreated over and over, during billions of years. I find it interesting that even those that seem to espouse the theory of evolution still seem to see the very start of life on Earth as a one time thing, or, creation. I believe in a creator myself, but, maybe some people also do, that don't even realize it.

13 years ago

I want to see those 'biggy' animals in the movies.So who needs the dinosaurs anymore! Those lava flows would have been good for hotdogs and marshmallows

13 years ago

So a bit of global warming and then the methane kicks in.
Sound familiar to anything else happening?

Truely scary warning of the past results of climate change.

13 years ago

not terribly interesting?
All life nearly ended!
and why are you bothering to watch it if its not interesting to you?

13 years ago

Not terribly interesting to me, but good information nonetheless. It's always nice to learn more.

13 years ago

Thanks Vlatko for your cool syte