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Bistability of atmospheric oxygen and the Great Oxidation


The history of the Earth has been characterized by a series of major transitions separated by long periods of relative stability1. The largest chemical transition was the ‘Great Oxidation’, approximately 2.4 billion years ago, when atmospheric oxygen concentrations rose from less than 10-5 of the present atmospheric level (PAL) to more than 0.01 PAL, and possibly2 to more than 0.1 PAL. This transition took place long after oxygenic photosynthesis is thought to have evolved3,4,5, but the causes of this delay and of the Great Oxidation itself remain uncertain6,7,8,9,10,11. Here we show that the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis gave rise to two simultaneously stable steady states for atmospheric oxygen. The existence of a low-oxygen (less than 10-5 PAL) steady state explains how a reducing atmosphere persisted for at least 300 million years after the onset of oxygenic photosynthesis. The Great Oxidation can be understood as a switch to the high-oxygen (more than 5 × 10-3 PAL) steady state. The bistability arises because ultraviolet shielding of the troposphere by ozone becomes effective once oxygen levels exceed 10-5 PAL, causing a nonlinear increase in the lifetime of atmospheric oxygen. Our results indicate that the existence of oxygenic photosynthesis is not a sufficient condition for either an oxygen-rich atmosphere or the presence of an ozone layer, which has implications for detecting life on other planets using atmospheric analysis12,13 and for the evolution of multicellular life.

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Figure 1: Model schematic.
Figure 2: Steady-state solutions for oxygen.
Figure 3: Transient response to step changes at 2.4 Gyr ago representing possible triggers of the Great Oxidation.

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C.G. is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. T.M.L. is supported by a Leverhulme Prize. We thank J. Kasting and L. Kump for comments on the manuscript. C.G. thanks J. Meiss for teaching dynamical systems. Author Contributions T.M.L. and A.J.W suggested the study. C.G. wrote and analysed the model with supervision from T.M.L. and A.J.W., and led writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Colin Goldblatt.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Notes

This file contains Supplementary Figures and Supplementary Discussion. This includes details on compilation of proxy data for palaeo-oxygen; full model derivation; and temperature difference calculations. (PDF 162 kb)

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Goldblatt, C., Lenton, T. & Watson, A. Bistability of atmospheric oxygen and the Great Oxidation. Nature 443, 683–686 (2006).

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