What’s Hydrogen Sulfide? A Nasty Way For Life On Earth to Die

People who don’t like bad news should probably never read any of my enviro writing for AlterNet. Because there’s nothing but bad news on the event horizon when it comes to climate change. And when I say bad, I mean, like, mass extinction bad. Of course, the problem is so large, and the ramifications so dystopian, that it’s more than easy to laugh off my well-evidenced warnings. But doubters also slammed me for being an economic pessimist, and look how that worked out for them. With that in mind, I really think you should read this. And weep, if you have to. Doing something about it would be better.

Thanks to Our Fossil Fuel Addiction, We May Be Setting Ourselves Up for a Catastrophic Natural Event
[Scott Thill, AlterNet]
What is hydrogen sulfide? It smells like farts and rotten eggs. You can find it in swamps, sewers, landfills, volcanic and natural gases, and pretty much everywhere there is a petroleum refinery. Unfortunately, you can also usually find it whenever and wherever you’ve got mass extinctions.

In fact, it is hydrogen sulfide, rather than killer asteroids or some other interstellar death-bringer, that has possibly become the go-to kill-shot of most mass extinctions in Earth’s history.

“It doesn’t take much hydrogen sulfide to kill off anything,” Gerry Dickens, professor of earth science and paleoceanography at Rice University, explained to AlterNet by phone.

He should know: It was Dickens’ work with methane hydrates that completed the puzzle of the Permian-Triassic extinction event, more aptly known as the Great Dying, in the 2002 BBC Horizon documentary The Day the Earth Nearly Died.

During the Great Dying, over 250 million years ago, flood basalts in the Siberian and Emeishan traps unleashed hell on Earth, spewing titanic walls of lava, ash, debris and greenhouse gases into the sky, blotting out the sun and surrounding hundreds of thousands of miles in a biblical inferno for which there is no contemporary analogue, at least in reality.

But even that wasn’t enough to wipe out the 96 percent of Earth’s marine, terrestrial and plant species claimed by the Great Dying. A growing scientific consensus explains that the death stroke was probably delivered from Earth’s anoxic oceans, whose resultant out-of-whack pH balance, once literally defined as the “power of hydrogen,” released catastrophic stores of either methane hydrate or hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere.

Whichever one it was, hydrogen had the power to bring Earth to its knees. And it could happen again.

“It’s unannounced stealth nastiness,” Peter Ward, professor of biology and paleontology at the University of Washington, declared by phone to AlterNet. “My new book ends with a hydrogen sulfide extinction.”

That book, The Medea Hypothesis, posits not one but five hydrogen sulfide extinction events, including the Great Dying, throughout Earth’s history. Going further, it flips the Gaia hypothesis on its head by suggesting — with increasing persuasion, given our current climate crisis of too much carbon dioxide in the air and too little oxygen in the oceans — that Earth is not seeking an optimal physical and chemical environment for its life.

In fact, Ward argues, its multicellular life is actually suicidal in nature, whose doom will eventually return Earth to the microbes that have dominated most of its history.

Although the truth probably lies somewhere between Gaia and Medea, Ward seems to be right about one thing: Hydrogen sulfide is an unheralded executioner.

“If ancient volcanism raised CO2 and lowered the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, and global warming made it more difficult for the remaining oxygen to penetrate the oceans, conditions would have become amenable for the deep-sea anaerobic bacteria to generate massive upwellings of hydrogen sulfide,” Ward wrote in a Scientific American clarion call titled “Impact from the Deep.”Virtually no form of life on the earth was safe.” MORE @ ALTERNET