Flooding Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen may not have needed a triggering event

Just the circulation of basic nutrients may have been enough to affect the balance of gases

algal bloom

Much like it does today, the nutrient phosphorus helped drive ancient algal blooms in the oceans. That nutrient cycling could ultimately have oxidated Earth’s atmosphere, new research suggests.

Alexandr Trubetskoy/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

SAN FRANCISCO — Maybe the trigger for the rise of oxygen on Earth was nothing special. Maybe that oxidation didn’t need large tectonic shifts or the evolution of land plants. Instead, the circulation of carbon dioxide, oxygen and phosphorus between Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, rocks and the simplest of photosynthesizing life forms is sufficient to produce the dramatic shifts in atmospheric gases that occurred in Earth’s history, new research suggests.

“The [oxygen] transitions we see are driven by Earth’s nutrient cycles,” said Benjamin Mills, a biogeochemist and computer modeler at the University of Leeds in England, who presented the research December 10 at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting. The findings, led by Leeds geologist Lewis Alcott, were also published online December 10 in Science.

Early Earth’s atmosphere was a steamy mix of water vapor, CO₂, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane. Then, about 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen in the atmosphere suddenly skyrocketed, a surge known as the Great Oxidation Event (SN: 2/6/17). After another billion years or so, two more large pulses of oxygen to the atmosphere followed. One, called the Neoproterozoic Oxidation Event, which occurred from about 800 million to 540 million years ago, brought oxygen levels to within 10 to 50 percent of modern levels and oxidated the surface ocean. During a final pulse called the Paleozoic Oxidation Event, from about 450 million to 400 million years ago, oxygen rose to modern levels in the atmosphere and penetrated down into the deep ocean.  

Such dramatic pulses beg an explanation. Researchers have considered tectonics such as the formation of supercontinents, the uplift and weathering of mountains and the eruption of vast lava fields known as large igneous provinces. Such processes, the idea goes, might have funneled massive amounts of nutrients into the oceans in a short period of time, fueling sudden, world-changing blooms of algae. Other researchers propose that the three stepwise increases correspond to three big evolutionary advances: the rise of photosynthesizing algae, the flourishing and diversifying of those algae and the rise of land plants.

“You have a lot of ideas about things that can cause these stepwise events,” Mills said. “But you have no consensus, and you don’t even know if they’re really necessary.” Instead, the new study suggests, Earth’s simple biogeochemical cycling — the long-term recycling of carbon, oxygen and phosphorus — was enough ultimately to bring up the planet’s oxygen levels (SN: 10/1/19).

The researchers first constructed a simple computer model to consider how carbon, oxygen and phosphorus move between reservoirs on Earth and interact with each other.

Phosphorus, present only in rocks, is a key nutrient for creatures from microbes to algae to plants. Adding phosphorus from weathered rocks to ocean waters can drive microbial or algal activity in the water column. That can pull oxygen out of the water, making the water oxygen poor, or anoxic, and pulling more oxygen out of the sediments below. Eventually, this leads to more organic carbon getting buried in soils, and more oxygen being produced, until the chemistry flips again with the waters turning oxygen-rich. That oxygen can then escape from the water into the atmosphere.

The slow cooling of the planet also played a role in allowing oxygen to begin to accumulate. Early Earth’s atmosphere wasn’t amenable to letting oxygen stick around: Gases escaping from the mantle as the planet cooled led to a chemical state called reducing, in which oxygen is rapidly removed from the atmosphere through chemical reactions.

But by the time of the Great Oxidation Event, the atmosphere had become less reducing. How isn’t clear, and is an area for future research, Mills says. The cooling Earth may have been emitting fewer gases, or the chemistry of those gases may have undergone a change that made them less likely to remove oxygen (SN: 9/3/19).

The researchers created a simulation of these different inputs and outputs, and ran the model over billions of years to observe how atmospheric and ocean oxygen levels might change through time as a result of just these factors. The results, Mills says, were remarkably similar to the actual record of Earth’s oxygen levels reconstructed using the rock record. “Our conclusions are that no large tectonic or biological events were required,” he says. And that suggests “that complex life may not be required to build a high-oxygen world…. If you just have simple photosynthetic bacteria, like have been around [on Earth] for 3 billion years, you could reach modern [oxygen] levels.” 

Until this study, no attempts to reconstruct Earth’s long history of oxidation included the parallel history of phosphorus — although there have been “empirical hints that it’s linked,” says Noah Planavsky, a geochemist at Yale University not involved in the new study. “We know that Earth’s atmospheric oxygen is strongly tied to the biosphere,” he says, but reconstructing how these cycles interacted through Earth’s history has been lacking.

Still, some researchers are concerned that leaving out the role of tectonics, for example, may result in an oversimplication. “Certainly these biogeochemical systems are important. But in both the Paleoproterozoic and Neoproterozoic, we see a symphony, if you like, of forces acting to drive and sustain oxygen production,” says geologist Ashley Gumsley of Lund University in Sweden. “These include the assembly and breakup of a supercontinent, with … massive large igneous provinces, chemical weathering as well as global glaciation, all acting together.”

Mills acknowledges that these events may still have played a role in the evolution of oxygen on Earth. “The key point of all this is that, yes, these events happened and could have caused large changes in oxygen,” he says. But the team’s models suggest that “we didn’t need them.”

That conclusion is potentially good news for researchers looking for life on other planets, says astrobiologist and planetary scientist Joshua Krissansen-Totton of the University of California, Santa Cruz who was not involved in the study. “What is most exciting about this paper,” he says, “is that it does away with the need for [triggering] events” or complex photosynthesizing organisms like land plants.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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