Isotope Fractionation and Atmospheric Oxygen: Implications for Phanerozoic O2 Evolution

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Science  03 Mar 2000:
Vol. 287, Issue 5458, pp. 1630-1633
DOI: 10.1126/science.287.5458.1630

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Models describing the evolution of the partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen over Phanerozoic time are constrained by the mass balances required between the inputs and outputs of carbon and sulfur to the oceans. This constraint has limited the applicability of proposed negative feedback mechanisms for maintaining levels of atmospheric O2 at biologically permissable levels. Here we describe a modeling approach that incorporates O2-dependent carbon and sulfur isotope fractionation using data obtained from laboratory experiments on carbon-13 discrimination by vascular land plants and marine plankton. The model allows us to calculate a Phanerozoic O2 history that agrees with independent models and with biological and physical constraints and supports the hypothesis of a high atmospheric O2 content during the Carboniferous (300 million years ago), a time when insect gigantism was widespread.

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