THE ROLE OF THE SOLID EARTH IN REGULATING ATMOSPHERIC O2 LEVELS

Daniel A. Stolper, John A. Higgins, Louis A. Derry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations

Abstract

Solid-earth processes act as both sources and sinks for atmospheric O2. They act as sinks by introducing reduced minerals and gases to the earth's surface that can remove O2 from the atmosphere and ocean. They act as sources by exporting organic carbon and sedimentary pyrite to the mantle via subduction. Here we examine the relative sizes of igneous source and sinks of O2 for the modern earth to determine their magnitudes and if they are in balance today. We find that igneous sinks for O2 remove 1.8331012 mol O2/yr (60.43, 1r) while subduction indirectly releases 1.5631012 mol/O2 yr (60.33, 1r). This indicates that today igneous O2 sinks are balanced by solid earth sources. We propose this balance is achieved by negative feedbacks associated with either low-temperature hydrothermal sinks for O2, which are sensitive to deep-ocean O2 concentrations, or the amount of organic carbon and pyrite buried in sediments and subducted, which are sensitive to dissolved O2 concentrations. We also explore how igneous sinks for O2 may have varied in the Neoproterozoic when atmospheric O2 concentrations are thought to have been lower and the deep ocean anoxic. We find that despite these changes, the igneous O2 sink was essentially the same as today: 1.7831012 (60.43, 1r) mol O2/yr. We explore how this sink would change as the deep ocean accumulated sulfate, became oxygenated, and began oxidizing oceanic crust such that there was an increase in the subduction flux of oxidants to the subarc mantle. We propose that significant changes to the O2 cycle, both in terms of positive and negative feedbacks could occur during these transitions. For example, accumulation of sulfate in the deep ocean would increase the oxidation state of high-temperature hydrothermal fluids, decreasing the size of this O2 sink and thus promoting an increase in atmospheric O2. In contrast, the oxygenation of the deep ocean would have allowed hydrothermally derived H2S to react with and consume O2 instead of being titrated out via reactions with dissolved Fe21. Additionally, deep-ocean oxygenation would have initiated the oxidation of oceanic crust at low temperatures, creating new sinks for O2. Finally, the oxidation of the subarc mantle via subduction of newly oxidized sediments and altered oceanic crust would have increased the oxygen fugacity of arc volcanic gases, decreasing their overall demand for O2, allowing yet more O2 to accumulate in the atmosphere. We place these changes into a conceptual framework and discuss their potential impact on the history of atmospheric and marine O2 concentrations from the Neoproterozoic to late Paleozoic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1381-1444
Number of pages64
JournalAmerican Journal of Science
Volume321
Issue number10
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences

Keywords

  • earth history
  • hydrothermal
  • mantle
  • oxygen
  • redox
  • subduction
  • volcanism
  • weathering

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