Breathing? You Have Volcanoes, Tectonics, and Bacteria to Thank

Earth's atmosphere.

Earth’s atmosphere as seen from the International Space Station July 20, 2006. (Image: via NASA)

Breathing Earth’s breathable atmosphere is the key to life, and a new study suggests that the first burst of oxygen was added by a spate of eruptions from volcanoes brought about by tectonics. The study by geoscientists at Rice University offers a new theory to help explain the appearance of significant concentrations of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere about 2.5 billion years ago, something scientists call the Great Oxidation Event (GOE).

The research was published in Nature Geoscience. Study lead author James Eguchi, a NASA postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Riverside, who conducted the work for his Ph.D. dissertation at Rice, said:

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Eguchi’s co-authors are Rajdeep Dasgupta, an experimental and theoretical geochemist and professor in Rice’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, and Johnny Seales, a Rice graduate student who helped with the model calculations that validated the new theory.

The evolution of life as depicted in a mural at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.
The evolution of life depicted in a mural at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The rise of oxygen from a trace element to a primary atmospheric component was an important evolutionary development. (Image: David J. Des Marais, Thomas W. Scattergood, Linda L. Jahnke via NASA Ames)

Scientists have long pointed to photosynthesis — a process that produces waste oxygen — as a likely source of increased oxygen during the GOE. Dasgupta said the new theory doesn’t discount the role that the first photosynthetic organisms, cyanobacteria, played in the GOE, adding:

Cyanobacteria were alive on Earth as much as 500 million years before the GOE. While a number of theories have been offered to explain why it might have taken that long for oxygen to show up in the atmosphere, Dasgupta said he’s not aware of any that have simultaneously tried to explain a marked change in the ratio of carbon isotopes in carbonate minerals that began about 100 million years after the GOE. Geologists refer to this as the Lomagundi Event, and it lasted several hundred million years.

One in a hundred carbon atoms is the isotope carbon-13, and the other 99 are carbon-12. This 1-to-99 ratio is well documented in carbonates that formed before and after Lomagundi, but those formed during the event have about 10 percent more carbon-13.

Due to different chemical behaviors, inorganic carbon tends to return through eruptions at arc volcanoes above the subduction zone (center). Organic carbon follows a longer route, as it is drawn deep into the mantle (bottom) and returns through ocean island volcanoes (right).
This figure illustrates how inorganic carbon cycles through the mantle more quickly than organic carbon, which contains very little of the isotope carbon-13. Both inorganic and organic carbon are drawn into Earth’s mantle at subduction zones (top left). Due to different chemical behaviors, inorganic carbon tends to return through eruptions at arc volcanoes above the subduction zone (center). Organic carbon follows a longer route, as it is drawn deep into the mantle (bottom) and returns through ocean island volcanoes (right). The differences in recycling times, in combination with increased volcanism, can explain isotopic carbon signatures from rocks that are associated with both the Great Oxidation Event, about 2.4 billion years ago, and the Lomagundi Event that followed. (Image: J. Eguchi via University of California, Riverside)

Eguchi said the explosion in cyanobacteria associated with the GOE has long been viewed as playing a role in Lomagundi, explaining that:

Eguchi said people tried using this to explain Lomagundi, but the timing was again a problem:

Volcanoes and carbon dioxide

The scenario Eguchi, Dasgupta, and Seales arrived at to explain all of these factors is:

  • A dramatic increase in tectonic activity led to the formation of hundreds of volcanoes that spewed carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  • The climate warmed, increasing rainfall, which in turn increased “weathering,” the chemical breakdown of rocky minerals on Earth’s barren continents.
  • Weathering produced a mineral-rich runoff that poured into the oceans, supporting a boom in both cyanobacteria and carbonates.
  • The organic and inorganic carbon from these wound up on the seafloor and was eventually recycled back into Earth’s mantle at subduction zones, where oceanic plates are dragged beneath continents.
  • When sediments remelted into the mantle, inorganic carbon, hosted in carbonates, tended to be released early, re-entering the atmosphere through arc volcanoes directly above subduction zones.
  • Organic carbon, which contained very little carbon-13, was drawn deep into the mantle and emerged hundreds of millions of years later as carbon dioxide from island hotspot volcanoes like Hawaii.

Eguchi said:

Geoscientists (from left) James Eguchi, Johnny Seales and Rajdeep Dasgupta published a new theory that attempts to explain the first appearance of significant concentrations of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere about 2.5 billion years ago as well as a puzzling shift in the ratio of carbon isotopes in carbonate minerals that followed.
Geoscientists (from left) James Eguchi, Johnny Seales, and Rajdeep Dasgupta published a new theory that attempts to explain the first appearance of significant concentrations of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere about 2.5 billion years ago, as well as a puzzling shift in the ratio of carbon isotopes in carbonate minerals that followed. (Image: via Rice University)

Eguchi said the study emphasizes the importance of the role that deep Earth processes can play in the evolution of life at the surface:

Dasgupta is also the principal investigator on a NASA-funded effort called CLEVER Planets that is exploring how life-essential elements might come together on distant exoplanets. He said a better understanding of how Earth became habitable is important for studying habitability and its evolution on distant worlds:

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Deep Carbon Observatory.

 Provided by: Rice University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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