Analysis of Permian-Triassic brachiopod diversity and body size changes from different water depths spanning the continental shelf to basinal facies in South China provides insights into the process of environmental deterioration. Comparison of the temporal changes of brachiopod diversity between deepwater and shallow-water facies demonstrates that deepwater brachiopods disappeared earlier than shallow-water brachiopods. This indicates that high environmental stress commenced first in deepwater settings and later extended to shallow waters. This environmental stress is attributed to major volcanic eruptions, which first led to formation of a stratified ocean and a chemocline in the outer shelf and deeper water environments, causing the disappearance of deep marine benthos including brachiopods. The chemocline then rapidly migrated upward and extended to shallow waters, causing widespread mass extinction of shallow marine benthos. We predict that the spatial and temporal patterns of earlier onset of disappearance/extinction and ecological crisis in deeper water ecosystems will be recorded during other episodes of rapid global warming.