Late inception of a resiliently oxygenated upper ocean

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Science  13 Jul 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6398, pp. 174-177
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar5372

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The rise of oxygen

To understand the evolution of the biosphere, we need to know how much oxygen was present in Earth's atmosphere during most of the past 2.5 billion years. However, there are few proxies sensitive enough to quantify O2 at the low levels present until slightly less than 1 billion years ago. Lu et al. measured iodine/calcium ratios in marine carbonates, which are a proxy for dissolved oxygen concentrations in the upper ocean. They found that a major, but temporary, rise in atmospheric O2 occurred at around 400 million years ago and that O2 levels underwent a step change to near-modern values around 200 million years ago.

Science, this issue p. 174


Rising oceanic and atmospheric oxygen levels through time have been crucial to enhanced habitability of surface Earth environments. Few redox proxies can track secular variations in dissolved oxygen concentrations around threshold levels for metazoan survival in the upper ocean. We present an extensive compilation of iodine-to-calcium ratios (I/Ca) in marine carbonates. Our record supports a major rise in the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere at ~400 million years (Ma) ago and reveals a step change in the oxygenation of the upper ocean to relatively sustainable near-modern conditions at ~200 Ma ago. An Earth system model demonstrates that a shift in organic matter remineralization to greater depths, which may have been due to increasing size and biomineralization of eukaryotic plankton, likely drove the I/Ca signals at ~200 Ma ago.

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