Gas Bubbles in Fossil Amber as Possible Indicators of the Major Gas Composition of Ancient Air

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Science  18 Mar 1988:
Vol. 239, Issue 4846, pp. 1406-1409
DOI: 10.1126/science.239.4846.1406


Gases trapped in Miocene to Upper Cretaceous amber were released by gently crushing the amber under vacuum and were analyzed by quadrupole mass spectrometry. After discounting the possibility that the major gases N2, O2, and CO2 underwent appreciable diffusion and diagenetic exchange with their surroundings or reaction with the amber, it has been concluded that in primary bubbles (gas released during initial breakage) these gases represent mainly original ancient air modified by the aerobic respiration of microorganisms. Values of N2/(CO2 + O2) for each time period give consistent results despite varying O2/CO2 ratios that presumably were due to varying degrees of respiration. This allows calculation of original oxygen concentrations, which, on the basis of these preliminary results, appear to have changed from greater than 30 percent O2 during one part of the Late Cretaceous (between 75 and 95 million years ago) to 21 percent during the Eocene-Oligocene and for present-day samples, with possibly lower values during the Oligocene-Early Miocene. Variable O2 levels over time in general confirm theoretical isotope-mass balance calculations and suggest that the atmosphere has evolved over Phanerozoic time.