Methanogenesis sustained by sulfide weathering during the Great Oxidation Event

Abstract

The Great Oxidation Event following the end of the Archaean eon (~2.4 Ga) was a profound turning point in the history of Earth and life, but the relative importance of various contributing factors remains an intriguing puzzle. Controls on methane flux to the atmosphere were of particular consequence; too much methane would have inhibited a persistent rise of O2, but too little may have plunged Earth into severe and prolonged ice ages. Here, we document a shift in the weathering reactions controlling the ocean-bound flux of nickel—an essential micronutrient for the organisms that produced methane in Precambrian oceans—by applying Ni stable isotope analysis to Mesoarchaean and Palaeoproterozoic glacial sediments. Although Ni flux to the ocean dropped dramatically as Ni content of the continental crust decreased, the onset of sulfide weathering delivered a small, but vital, flux of Ni to the oceans, sustaining sufficient methane production to prevent a permanent icehouse, while allowing O2 to rise.

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Fig. 1: Compositional evolution of atmosphere, oceans and continental crust through time.
Fig. 2: Schematic comparison of Ni and methane cycling at different times.
Fig. 3: Stratigraphic synthesis of the Huronian and Transvaal supergroups, showing trends in total sulfur and δ60/58Ni in composite diamictites.

Data availability

All data supporting the findings of this study are available within the main text, figures and Supplementary Information files.

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Acknowledgements

We thank W. Maier and E. Ripley for providing the komatiite samples. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation EAR-1424676 to L.E.W. and EAR-1321954 to R.L.R. and R.M.G.

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S.-J.W. conceived the project, conducted the experimental analyses, interpreted the data and drafted the manuscript. L.E.W. provided funding and facilities, augmented the data interpretation and substantially edited the manuscript. R.L.R., R.M.G. and H.W. provided samples and participated in discussion of the interpretations and manuscript editing.

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Correspondence to Shui-Jiong Wang.

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Supplementary information, Supplementary Figs 1–6 and Tables 1–3

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Wang, SJ., Rudnick, R.L., Gaschnig, R.M. et al. Methanogenesis sustained by sulfide weathering during the Great Oxidation Event. Nat. Geosci. 12, 296–300 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0320-z

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