Formation of supercontinents linked to increases in atmospheric oxygen

Abstract

Atmospheric oxygen concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere rose from negligible levels in the Archaean Era to about 21% in the present day. This increase is thought to have occurred in six steps, 2.65, 2.45, 1.8, 0.6, 0.3 and 0.04 billion years ago, with a possible seventh event identified at 1.2 billion years ago. Here we show that the timing of these steps correlates with the amalgamation of Earth’s land masses into supercontinents. We suggest that the continent–continent collisions required to form supercontinents produced supermountains. In our scenario, these supermountains eroded quickly and released large amounts of nutrients such as iron and phosphorus into the oceans, leading to an explosion of algae and cyanobacteria, and thus a marked increase in photosynthesis, and the photosynthetic production of O2. Enhanced sedimentation during these periods promoted the burial of a high fraction of organic carbon and pyrite, thus preventing their reaction with free oxygen, and leading to sustained increases in atmospheric oxygen.

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Figure 1: Supercontinent ages compared with variations in atmospheric O2 and related variables.
Figure 2: Sketch of the O2 cycle showing the principal sources and sinks.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Brocks, J. Chappell, K. Eriksson, A. Trendall and M. Wille for their comments.

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C.M.A. carried out most of the analyses and compiled the data. I.H.C. initiated the study and wrote the paper. Both authors discussed the results and interpretation.

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Correspondence to Ian H. Campbell.

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Campbell, I., Allen, C. Formation of supercontinents linked to increases in atmospheric oxygen. Nature Geosci 1, 554–558 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo259

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