Letter | Published:

Bistability of atmospheric oxygen and the Great Oxidation

Nature volume 443, pages 683686 (12 October 2006) | Download Citation

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Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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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Affiliations

  1. School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Colin Goldblatt
    • , Timothy M. Lenton
    •  & Andrew J. Watson
  2. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh Research Station, Bush Estate, Penicuik, Midlothian, EH26 0QB, UK

    • Colin Goldblatt

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Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Colin Goldblatt.

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    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.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05169

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