Sea life in this region survived a past warming event. Here’s how we can get the fuckers this time around.

I looked into this research because the headline was about how life in the Gulf of Mexico seemed to survive a warming-driven marine mass extinction 56 million years ago.

“Oh neat,” I thought. “Another bit of research showing is how we can help the biosphere weather the shitstorm we’ve created!”

And then I read the second sentence.

An ancient bout of global warming 56 million years ago that acidified oceans and wiped-out marine life had a milder effect in the Gulf of Mexico, where life was sheltered by the basin’s unique geology – according to research by the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG).

Published in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology, the findings not only shed light on an ancient mass extinction, but could also help scientists determine how current climate change will affect marine life and aid in efforts to find deposits of oil and gas.

Oh. Oh yeah. We live in the Bad Timeline, where Irony came to die.

The research itself is interesting. Petroleum geology, as I understand it, is concerned with the most effective ways to find oil and gas deposits. This often means studying the stuff found when drilling, and then looking for those same things in other places to find new places to drill. This is one of those areas where the pyramid scheme of capitalism is creating what I would consider to be an ethical quandary for those scientists who’ve found profitable employment in service to corporate interests. We’re now at the point where an article is simultaneously studying how global warming caused a mass extinction in the past, while also working to accelerate the rate at which the planet is currently warming.

“Be sure to get the newest issue of Mass Murderers Monthly, where we study past and present mass murder, and use that knowledge to ensure the continuation of this noble tradition!”

“This event known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM is very important to understand because it’s pointing towards a very powerful, albeit brief, injection of carbon into the atmosphere that’s akin to what’s happening now,” he said.

Cunningham and his collaborators investigated the ancient period of global warming and its impact on marine life and chemistry by studying a group of mud, sand, and limestone deposits found across the Gulf.

They sifted through rock chips brought up during oil and gas drilling and found an abundance of microfossils from radiolarians – a type of plankton— that had surprisingly thrived in the Gulf during the ancient global warming. They concluded that a steady supply of river sediments and circulating ocean waters had helped radiolarians and other microorganisms survive even while Earth’s warming climate became more hostile to life.

“In a lot of places, the ocean was absolutely uninhabitable for anything,” said UTIG biostratigrapher Marcie Purkey Phillips. “But we just don’t seem to see as severe an effect in the Gulf of Mexico as has been seen elsewhere.”

How nice for the ancient Gulf of Mexico. This time the region is littered with abandoned oil wells that will do their part to make the Gulf more hostile to life in exciting new ways! Still, it’s useful to consider what made the Gulf something of a refuge from an ongoing mass extinction.

The reasons for that go back to geologic forces reshaping North America at the time. About 20 million years before the ancient global warming, the rise of the Rocky Mountains had redirected rivers into the northwest Gulf of Mexico – a tectonic shift known as the Laramide uplift – sending much of the continent’s rivers through what is now Texas and Louisiana into the Gulf’s deeper waters.

When global warming hit and North America became hotter and wetter, the rain-filled rivers fire-hosed nutrients and sediments into the basin, providing plenty of nutrients for phytoplankton and other food sources for the radiolarians.

The findings also confirm that the Gulf of Mexico remained connected to the Atlantic Ocean and the salinity of its waters never reached extremes – a question that until now had remained open. According to Phillips, the presence of radiolarians alone – which only thrive in nutrient-rich water that’s no saltier than seawater today – confirmed that the Gulf’s waters did not become too salty. Cunningham added that the organic content of sediments decreased farther from the coast, a sign that deep currents driven by the Atlantic Ocean were sweeping the basin floor.

Basically, the factors that saved life in the region 56 million years ago, will almost certainly not save them now. Not only have some of the rivers changed their flow (the Colorado used to empty into the Gulf of Mexico), but we also don’t have a particularly sustainable relationship with fresh water, and the Mississippi Delta dead zone created by agricultural runoff is pretty much the inverse of the life-giving effect the researchers attribute to ancient rivers.

As always, I’m glad to know more. This is knowledge we can use, if we ever get around to doing something about our looming extinction. I also think this is evidence that if we do really start changing things, it will likely start improving ecological resilience downstream (literally, in this case).

When we talk about climate action, there’s a lot of stuff considered low-hanging fruit. Improving energy efficiency and putting solar panels along highways and railways are a couple examples. I think that we should also be expecting to take an active role in ecosystem management, even if it’s only out of self-preservation. As much as possible, we should be dong things that will make future action easier, and that will buy more time for that action. If we can figure out a way to stop polluting and draining our rivers (like maybe by changing how we grow food?), the rivers will start doing some of our work for us.

Unfortunately, none of that will matter until we stop actively making the problem worse. It’s maddening that people are still forging ahead, looking for new places to drill, even as they’re learning about how the conditions that industry is currently creating caused a mass extinction. It honestly feels like I’m watching people who’ve been completely brainwashed, to the point where they’re not even capable of considering that they need to stop.

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  1. Bruce says

    Your phrase:
    (the Colorado used to empty into the Gulf of Mexico)
    Should be replaced with:
    (the Colorado used to empty !

    The Colorado no longer has enough water even to get to Mexico.

  2. says

    I did have that in an earlier draft, I think I just figured that even if we DID let it flow properly, it’d go to the Pacific, so it’s the same for the Gulf either way.

    It’s always worth bringing up, though.

  3. says

    >“Be sure to get the newest issue of Mass Murderers Monthly, where we study past and present mass murder, and use that knowledge to ensure the continuation of this noble tradition!”

    See, I think you’re being too nice with that summary. The previous mass extiction wasn’t a mass murder: nobody planned it. It’s more like they are saying “We study past mass natural death, and use that knowledge to ensure that we can commit mass murders!”

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