Mineralogical - Geochemical Investigation of two sections across the Permian-Triassic Boundary in the Continental Realm of the Southern Karoo Basin, South Africa

Coney, Louise
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The Late Permian (251.0 ± 0.4 Ma) mass extinction is universally acknowledged as the most consequential of the five major Phanerozoic mass extinctions. More than 90% of marine species, ~70% of terrestrial vertebrates, and ~90% of plant life were lost in a very short interval. The nature of the Permian-Triassic (P-Tr) boundary and the cause of the mass extinction associated with it have been the subject of extensive international debate. Possible causes for the P-Tr extinction include asteroid/comet impact, oceanic anoxia, volcanism, methane clathrate dissociation, or combinations of these causes. Geochemical studies of the P-Tr boundary have traditionally been focused on the marine realm, as the boundary in continental sections is typically difficult to pinpoint. One continental setting of the P-Tr boundary that has, however, received much attention is that in the main Karoo Basin, South Africa. The Karoo Basin is a large retro-arc foreland basin which accumulated sediment from the Carboniferous (300 Ma) through to the Early Jurassic (180 Ma) in southwestern Gondwana. Mineralogical and geochemical investigations across two palaeontologically well-constrained continental P-Tr boundary sections at Commando Drift Dam and Wapadsberg in the southern Karoo Basin of South Africa have been undertaken in order to aid in our understanding of this extinction event. The Commando Drift Dam section is also constrained palaeomagnetically. There is a change in paleosol colour across the P-Tr boundary from green-grey to red-brown, which is believed to reflect a change of oxidizing conditions at the P-Tr boundary. Quartz grains were examined for possibly impact-produced microdeformation features, but these were not found. Iridium concentrations are below the detection limit (by instrumental neutron activation analysis) and the sections could not be evaluated as to whether any significant enrichment has taken place at the P-Tr boundary. Major element chemical profiles are dominated by the signatures of carbonate nodular horizons in both sequences. Iron contents (and accompanying siderophile element abundances) increase across the palaeontologically-defined P-Tr boundary, followed by a decrease thereafter. The major element concentrations, together with the effects of weathering, largely control trace element distribution. Carbon isotopic results from the Commando Drift Dam section show a gradual decrease in values before the P-Tr boundary, with a larger negative excursion at the P-Tr boundary. Above the boundary, gradual recovery to initial ratios is observed, followed by another gradual decrease in values to the palaeomagnetically defined boundary. No evidence supporting an extraterrestrial impact extinction mechanism has been found. Rather, the carbon isotope data from this study support two gradual palaeoclimatic changes separated by a sudden change in the carbon isotopic content of the atmosphere. The size and nature of these excursions support the addition of large amounts of anoxic material into the atmosphere. This is proposed to have been caused by the multiple influx of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases at various times and by different mechanisms. Such a release of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases could have been caused by the coincident volcanic event (the formation of the Siberian Traps) and the episodic release of methane clathrates.
Student Number : 9902718G - MSc dissertation - School of Geosciences - Faculty of Science
Permian-Triassic Boundary, Geochemistry, Mass Extinction