Saturday, August 27, 2005

Lava may hold answers to questions about shifting climates.

Scientists on drill ships are studying colossal slabs of volcanic lava hidden under the sea that shaped its climate, helped determine its life forms and record Earth's violent past.

They think their research can help explain what's happening to the warming world today.

The extent of some of these buried lava flows is mind-boggling. Fragments left by a series of eruptions 200 million years ago in what's now the Atlantic Ocean stretch across four continents, in places from New England to France and from the Amazon to west Africa.

An even larger outburst, 120 million years ago off the Indonesian island of Java in the southwest Pacific, slathered molten rock over more than 1.2 million square miles of ocean floor, enough to cover Alaska or western Europe with a layer up to 18 miles thick.

Along with somewhat smaller -- but still enormous -- volcanic eruptions on dry land, these belches from the planet's fiery interior contributed to a series of mass extinctions of most of the organisms that were then alive.

Although the extinctions were devastating to life at the time, scientists think they opened the way for new, more advanced creatures to evolve, including humans.

Mass extinctions have "radically changed the types of life on Earth because rapid evolution after each disaster led to the older forms becoming replaced by newer forms," said Gregory McHone, a geologist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

The blasts from the past may have ominous implications for future climate change, however, some scientists say.

"The rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, happening today, appears to have happened in the past, too," said Paul Wignall, an earth scientist at the University of Leeds in England.

"In many ways, these rapid and giant eruptions seem to replicate the effects of fossil fuel burning, and so have provided natural experiments closely similar to human activity," Wignall said in an e-mail message. "The consequence of rapid warming of oceans and atmospheres appears to be mass extinction."

Lava is a common type of rock that's been melted by temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees and flows out from a volcano or a crack in the Earth's surface. It rises from a 400-mile-thick layer of hot, gooey material, known as magma, that lies between the planet's crust and its solid core.

The oceanic lava sheets are mostly invisible from the surface, but continents also bear traces of huge volcanic eruptions.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, for instance, contains a 50-by-40-mile crater left by a series of volcanic eruptions, averaging about 600,000 years apart.

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