Geochemical clue to environmental effects of large igneous provinces

Several flood volcanism events seem to link to mass extinctions, and they have been seen as the culprits for global environmental change. Since flood volcanism is outside human experience, geologists have little conception of what they do other than amass up to millions of cubic kilometres of lavas both mafic and silicic. They all probably emitted CO2 and contributed to global warming, but whether they are able to deliver sulfate and particulate aerosols to the stratosphere to trigger cooling is hard to judge. But it seems there is a proxy for their global influence (Peate, D. 2009. Global dispersal of Pb by large-volume silicic eruptions in the Paraná-Etendeka large igneous province. Geology, v. 37, p. 1071-1074). Lead is potentially a volatile element that would accompany large volcanic gas and dust emissions, and it also bears unique isotopic signatures. Lead isotope proportions in sediments in contemporaneous marine sediments could be matched with those of large igneous provinces (LIPs). Should their signature occur globally, then it would be a fair bet that the products of volcanism did reach cloud-free stratospheric altitudes, there to be mixed globally and to remain aloft for many years. Below the tropopause gas and dust would soon be rained out, so that signatures would remain local.

Dave Peate of the University of Iowa found that the 208Pb/204Pb and 206Pb/206Pb ratios of 132 Ma sediments from an Ocean Drilling Program core in the mid-Pacific fall in the same field as those of the Paraná-Etendeka large igneous province. The sediments occur just below and within a prominent δ13C anomaly that geochemists believe to signify a major change in the biosphere, and the site is almost at the antipode of the Paraná-Etendeka large igneous province. Sediments from below the shift in carbon isotopes show lead-isotope ratios that can be explained by derivation from the oceanic crust underlying them, whereas those that witness a profound change in the biosphere overlap with the field of the P-E LIP. Specifically, they match the lead ‘signature’ of silicic volcanics rather than basalts, and in particular those with low titanium contents. So it seems that in this case basalt floods may not have been implicated in global environmental change, but the much less voluminous but probably far more violent ignimbrite do seem likely culprits. There were more than 20 such events within an interval of less than 2 Ma that emitted >100 km3 of silicic magma, most exceeding 1000 km3.

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