Mass extinction researcher hoping for return to UAE

Rocks from the UAE led to a breakthrough in understanding the reason for a mass extinction 250 million years ago and now the researcher aims to return here for further studies.

Wadi Al Bih in Ras Al Khaimah presented scientists studying the Earth with a window into the past. Pawan Singh / The National
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LONDON // The researcher who led a groundbreaking study that used rocks from the UAE to discover that volcanic activity caused a mass extinction a quarter of a billion years ago hopes to return to the Emirates for a follow-up project.

Dr Matthew Clarkson is looking to uncover more about the Earth's past after his research on rocks from Wadi Bih, in Ras Al Khaimah, formed the basis of a scientific paper published in the journal Science.

The research used changes in the chemical composition of rocks to show that ocean acidification was a key factor behind an event 252 million years ago that wiped out more than 90 per cent of marine species and more than two-thirds of land animal species.

Taking place at the border of the Permian and Triassic geological periods, it was the largest mass extinction of all time.

Dr Clarkson and his fellow researchers have further work from the rocks to be published, and he plans to return for more fieldwork if funding is available.

“It would be great to visit the sections again. It is like returning to an old friend, catching up and learning the secrets of the past,” he said.

Alterations in the element boron in the rocks, which were laid down when the area was covered by the Tethys Sea between the two “supercontinents” of Gondwana and Laurasia, showed the oceans had become more acidic.

Laurasia today is, roughly speaking, North America and Eurasia, except India. Gondwana became South America, Africa, the Arabian peninsula, India, Australia and Antarctica.

Acidity was caused by a spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide. That was triggered by the release of vast quantities of lava that heated sedimentary rocks in what is now Siberia.

The area containing the rocks had a high sedimentation rate, giving “excellent resolution of the time period” and the rocks also recorded conditions at various water depths, Dr Clarkson said.

“The rocks are wonderfully exposed due to the desert conditions. Accessibility (to the site) was easy enough, with the only real threat from animals being the odd goat trying to eat our field note books,” he added.

Wadi Bih is at the mountain range near Musandam peninsula and is in an area used by researchers studying the boundary of Permian and Triassic eras.

The visits for the study took place in November 2011 and January 2012, when Dr Clarkson began his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago, in New Zealand.