Oxygen flooded Earth’s atmosphere earlier than thought

Volcanism and global glaciation coincided to the gas’s rise

Banded iron

OXYGEN’S ORIGINS  The rise of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, known as the Great Oxidation Event, began around 100 million years earlier than previously thought, new research suggests. The oxygen’s presence left a mark in the geologic record, such as this 2.1-billion-year-old banded iron formation.

André Karwath aka Aka/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The breath of oxygen that enabled the emergence of complex life kicked off around 100 million years earlier than previously thought, new dating suggests.

Previous studies pegged the first appearance of relatively abundant oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, known as the Great Oxidation Event, or GOE, at a little over 2.3 billion years ago. New dating of ancient volcanic outpourings, however, suggests that oxygen levels began a wobbly upsurge between 2.460 billion and 2.426 billion years ago, researchers report the week of February 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That time difference is a big deal, says study coauthor and sedimentary geologist Andrey Bekker of the University of California, Riverside. The new date shakes up scientists’ understanding of the environmental conditions that led to the GOE, which prompted the evolution of oxygen-dependent life-forms called eukaryotes. Voluminous volcanic eruptions at the time poured fresh rock over a supercontinent near the equator, and the planet dipped into a frigid period known as a Snowball Earth.

A similar series of geologic events around 700 million years ago coincided with a second rise of oxygen, to near-modern levels, and some eukaryotes evolving into the first animals. Both oxygen upswings pushed life toward complexity and the ultimate emergence of humans, Bekker says. “For the first time, we see parallels between these two time intervals,” he says.

Oxygen-producing microbes probably first appeared more than 3 billion years ago (SN Online: 9/8/15). But oxygen remained scant until the GOE when, for unknown reasons, atmospheric concentrations of the gas rose from near zero to around 0.1 percent of modern levels.

Dating the GOE’s start has been tricky, though, because few rocks from back then remain. Geologist Ashley Gumsley of Lund University in Sweden, Bekker and colleagues studied ancient volcanic rocks from South Africa that neighbor a layer of minerals that could have formed only in the presence of oxygen. Using an old technique, geologists had previously determined those volcanic rocks to be from around 2.222 billion years ago, well after the GOE’s start.

Applying modern techniques that measure the gradual decay of radioactive uranium in the rocks, the researchers revised the volcanism’s timing to about 2.426 billion years ago. That new date — plus a separate volcanic eruption previously dated to around 2.460 billion years ago that clearly happened before the oxygen rise — helps constrain the potential GOE start date.

The GOE isn’t the only global event to have its timeline tweaked. The oldest known evidence of global glaciation, called a Snowball Earth, lies underneath and alongside the South African rocks. The new eruption dating pushes that Snowball Earth event earlier as well — to around the same time as the start of the GOE.

The oxygen rise and the temperature drop may have been related, the researchers propose.

The new data and existing chemical evidence suggest that oxygen levels during the GOE wavered between pitiful and plentiful several times, rather than steadily rising (SN: 2/18/17, p. 16). (Oxygen concentrations stabilized around 2.250 billion years ago and remained largely unchanged until levels rose again more than a billion years later.) These oscillations coincided with Snowball Earths and volcanic eruptions, Gumsley says.

Climate, oxygen and volcanism were intertwined during the GOE, the researchers propose. Volcanic eruptions covered the supercontinent with fresh rock. That rock formed near the equator where heavy precipitation weathered the rock, drawing carbon dioxide from the air and washing nutrients into the ocean. Those nutrients nourished photosynthetic microbes, which produced an abundance of oxygen. Oxygen built up in the atmosphere and reacted with methane, reducing levels of that greenhouse gas (SN: 10/29/16, p. 17).

With less CO2 and methane warming the climate, Earth froze and oxygen-producing biological activity decreased. The ongoing volcanism spewed replacement CO2 into the atmosphere over time and eventually reheated the planet.

“This is further evidence that oxygen’s history has really been a roller coaster ride rather than a unidirectional rise,” says Yale University geochemist Noah Planavsky. While he’s uncertain about the role rock weathering played in controlling ancient oxygen levels, Planavsky believes the new age will allow scientists to delve into the question of why the GOE began when it did. “Without dates,” he says, it’s impossible “to have any real grounding to tackle these problems.”

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