Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cold Front Antarctica Is Door to Disasters Past, Future

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cold Front Antarctica Is Door to Disasters Past, Future

Article excerpt

Storage tank for 70 percent of all the fresh water on earth, Antarctica holds the clue to the last worldwide environmental disaster - and the key to the next one.

To scientists, the idea of asteroids smashing into Earth and imperiling life as we know it is not just plausible, it is verifiable.

Antarctica, more than anywhere else, contains evidence of plant and animal life that for millions of years flourished and then abruptly, cataclysmically went extinct. The most famous extinction was thought to have been caused by an asteroid that slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago. It killed off 75 percent of all species of life on Earth, including the dinosaurs. Less famous but equally important were four earlier catastrophes, the bi ggest of which occurred 251 million years ago between the twilight of the Permian age and the dawn of the Triassic. It came close to killing everything and leaving Earth a dead planet. Only 4 percent of the world's plant, animal and microorganism species survived. Most scientists believe the Permo-Triassic extinction was triggered not by an asteroid collision, but by all of Earth's continents bunching together into a super-continent they call "Pangea." The collision of the continental plates set off volcanic eruptions in Siberia, spewing enormous clouds of dust into the atmosphere that effectively smothered most of life on Earth. The atmosphere remained so toxic that it took 10 million years for widespread biological diversity to rebloom. Now, climatologists are studying the trend of global warming and the possibility that it could eventually melt Antarctica's ice. Evidence of past such occurrences there show how resulting rising sea levels could trigger Earth's next great die-off, exterminating many forms of life both in the sea and on land. "We still live in an ice age," said Tom Taylor of the University of Kansas. "All the plants and animals we see today were adapted to an environment of advancing and retreating ice. We may be in a time today when the glaciers are in retreat because of global warming trends." The global climate could do an about face and get colder, as it has done periodically in the past. …

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