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Great Oxidation and Lomagundi events linked by deep cycling and enhanced degassing of carbon

Abstract

For approximately the first 2 billion years of the Earth’s history, atmospheric oxygen levels were extremely low. It was not until at least half a billion years after the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis, perhaps as early as 3 billion years ago, that oxygen rose to appreciable levels during the Great Oxidation Event. Shortly after, marine carbonates underwent a large positive spike in carbon isotope ratios known as the Lomagundi event. The mechanisms responsible for the Great Oxidation and Lomagundi events remain debated. Using a carbon–oxygen box model that tracks the Earth’s surface and interior carbon fluxes and reservoirs, while also tracking carbon isotopes and atmospheric oxygen levels, we demonstrate that about 2.5 billion years ago a tectonic transition that resulted in increased volcanic CO2 emissions could have led to increased deposition of both carbonates and organic carbon (organic C) via enhanced weathering and nutrient delivery to oceans. Increased burial of carbonates and organic C would have allowed the accumulation of atmospheric oxygen while also increasing the delivery of carbon to subduction zones. Coupled with preferential release of carbonates at arc volcanoes and deep recycling of organic C to ocean island volcanoes, we find that such a tectonic transition can simultaneously explain the Great Oxidation and Lomagundi events without any change in the fraction of carbon buried as organic C relative to carbonate, which is often invoked to explain carbon isotope excursions.

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Fig. 1: Variations in atmospheric O2, carbonate δ13C and tracers of tectonic processes through geological time.
Fig. 2: Natural data and petrologic calculations suggesting preferential release of carbonate over organic C in present-day and ancient subduction zones.
Fig. 3: A comparison of carbon isotope compositions of CO2 emissions from different volcanic settings.
Fig. 4: A schematic diagram showing preferential release of carbonate C at arc volcanoes and organic C at ocean island volcanoes.
Fig. 5: Model results showing how tectonically driven increased CO2 emissions and deep recycling of organic C can drive both the GOE and LE.

Data availability

Data used in the generation of Fig. 1 were taken directly, without any alteration, from the references given in the figure caption and can be accessed in the original publications cited therein. In addition, the original author has made available the data compilation of C isotopes on his personal website: http://www.krisstott.com/publications.html. The data used in Fig. 2a are reported in Supplementary Table 2 and can be accessed from the original publications cited in that table. The data in Supplementary Table 2 have been made publicly available at http://www.earthchem.org (https://doi.org/10.1594/IEDA/111406). The compiled data used in Fig. 3 are reported in Supplementary Table 3 and can be accessed from the original publications cited in the table. The data in Supplementary Table 3 have been made publicly available at http://www.earthchem.org (https://doi.org/10.1594/IEDA/111406).

Code availability

All equations required by the model are presented in Methods. The python code for the model is included in the Supplementary material at https://github.com/jameseguchi

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank the reviewers for their constructive reviews. R.D. acknowledges support from the NSF (grant no. OCE-1338842), NASA (grant no. 80NSSC18K0828) and the Deep Carbon Observatory. J.E. acknowledges support from a NASA Postdoctoral Program fellowship with the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

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J.E. conceived the project, compiled the necessary data and developed the model as part of his PhD thesis. J.S. helped develop the box model and provided insight on geodynamic considerations. R.D. guided J.E. as his thesis advisor to help refine the idea. All authors contributed to writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to James Eguchi.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion, Figs. 1–3 and Tables 1–4.

Supplementary software

Python script for carbon–oxygen box model described in manuscript.

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Eguchi, J., Seales, J. & Dasgupta, R. Great Oxidation and Lomagundi events linked by deep cycling and enhanced degassing of carbon. Nat. Geosci. 13, 71–76 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0492-6

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