"The results demonstrate how rapidly rising temperatures in the atmosphere can affect ocean circulation, cutting off oxygen to lower depths and extinguishing most life," says NCAR scientist Jeffrey Kiehl, the lead author.
Kiehl and coauthor Christine Shields focused on the dramatic events at the end of the Permian Era, when an estimated 90 to 95% of all marine species, as well as about 70% of all terrestrial species, became extinct. At the time of the event, higher-latitude temperatures were 18 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 30 degrees Celsius) higher than today, and extensive volcanic activity had released large amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere over a 700,000-year period.
To solve the puzzle of how those conditions may have affected climate and life around the globe, the researchers turned to the Community Climate System Model (CCSM). One of the world's premier climate research tools, the model can integrate changes in atmospheric temperatures with ocean temperatures and currents. Research teams had previously studied the Permian extinction with more limited computer models that focused on a single component of Earth's climate system, such as the ocean.
The CCSM indicated that ocean waters warmed significantly at higher latitudes because of rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. The warming reached a depth of about 10,000 feet (4,000 meters), interfering with the normal circulation process in which colder surface water descends, taki