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Increased subaerial volcanism and the rise of atmospheric oxygen 2.5 billion years ago


The hypothesis that the establishment of a permanently oxygenated atmosphere at the Archaean–Proterozoic transition (2.5 billion years ago) occurred when oxygen-producing cyanobacteria evolved1 is contradicted by biomarker evidence for their presence in rocks 200 million years older2. To sustain vanishingly low oxygen levels despite near-modern rates of oxygen production from 2.7–2.5 billion years ago thus requires that oxygen sinks must have been much larger than they are now. Here we propose that the rise of atmospheric oxygen occurred because the predominant sink for oxygen in the Archaean era—enhanced submarine volcanism—was abruptly and permanently diminished during the Archaean–Proterozoic transition. Observations3,4,5 are consistent with the corollary that subaerial volcanism only became widespread after a major tectonic episode of continental stabilization at the beginning of the Proterozoic. Submarine volcanoes are more reducing than subaerial volcanoes6, so a shift from predominantly submarine to a mix of subaerial and submarine volcanism more similar to that observed today would have reduced the overall sink for oxygen and led to the rise of atmospheric oxygen.

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Figure 1: Archaean–Palaeoproterozoic volcanism, continental stabilization, and atmospheric oxygen evolution.
Figure 2: Secular variation in proportion of subaerial LIPs.
Figure 3: The distribution of Holland’s f values 6 for modern submarine and subaerial volcanoes.


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L.R.K. acknowledges support from the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation. M.E.B.’s contribution was supported by the Australian Research Council.

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Correspondence to Lee R. Kump.

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Supplementary Tables

The Supplementary Table 1 provides the data used in the assessment of changes in the relative proportion of subaerial vs. submarine volcanism through time based on previously compiled data on occurrences of large igneous provinces. The Supplementary Table 2 provides additional data on older greenstone successions used in our analysis that were not previously identified as associated with large igneous provinces. The Supplementary Table 3 provides a compilation of literature data on the composition of volcanic and hydrothermal fluids and the derived values of “f” used in our analysis of the reducing power of these fluids. The Supplementary Table 4 provides the descriptive statistics and the results of a t-test meant to determine if subaerial and submarine volcanoes have statistically significantly different “f” values. Statistical analysis performed in Microsoft Excel. (PDF 302 kb)

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Kump, L., Barley, M. Increased subaerial volcanism and the rise of atmospheric oxygen 2.5 billion years ago. Nature 448, 1033–1036 (2007).

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