Research Article

Stepwise Earth oxygenation is an inherent property of global biogeochemical cycling

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Science  13 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6471, pp. 1333-1337
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax6459

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Stepping to an internal beat

What caused the stepwise nature of the rise of molecular oxygen in Earth's atmosphere since it appeared in large quantities more than 2 billion years ago? Alcott et al. argue that a set of internal feedbacks involving the global phosphorus, carbon, and oxygen cycles, not individual external forces, could be responsible. Their model, which depends only on a gradual shift from reducing to oxidizing surface conditions over time, produces the same three-step pattern observed in the geological record.

Science, this issue p. 1333


Oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans occurred across three major steps during the Paleoproterozoic, Neoproterozoic, and Paleozoic eras, with each increase having profound consequences for the biosphere. Biological or tectonic revolutions have been proposed to explain each of these stepwise increases in oxygen, but the principal driver of each event remains unclear. Here we show, using a theoretical model, that the observed oxygenation steps are a simple consequence of internal feedbacks in the long-term biogeochemical cycles of carbon, oxygen, and phosphorus, and that there is no requirement for a specific stepwise external forcing to explain the course of Earth surface oxygenation. We conclude that Earth’s oxygenation events are entirely consistent with gradual oxygenation of the planetary surface after the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis.

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