Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Model gives clearer idea of how oxygen came to dominate Earth’s atmosphere

09.08.2005


A number of hypotheses have been used to explain how free oxygen first accumulated in Earth’s atmosphere some 2.4 billion years ago, but a full understanding has proven elusive. Now a new model offers plausible scenarios for how oxygen came to dominate the atmosphere, and why it took at least 300 million years after bacterial photosynthesis started producing oxygen in large quantities.



The big reason for the long delay was that processes such as volcanic gas production acted as sinks to consume free oxygen before it reached levels high enough to take over the atmosphere, said Mark Claire, a University of Washington doctoral student in astronomy and astrobiology. Free oxygen would combine with gases in a volcanic plume to form new compounds, and that process proved to be a significant oxygen sink, he said.

Another sink was iron delivered to the Earth’s outer crust by bombardment from space. Free oxygen was consumed as it oxidized, or rusted, the metal.


But Claire said that just changing the model to reflect different iron content in the outer crust makes a huge difference in when the model shows free oxygen filling the atmosphere. Increasing the actual iron content fivefold would have delayed oxygenation by more than 1 billion years, while cutting iron to one-fifth the actual level would have allowed oxygenation to happen more than 1 billion years earlier.

"We were fairly surprised that we could push the transition a billion years in either direction, because those levels of iron in the outer crust are certainly plausible given the chaotic nature of how Earth formed," he said.

Claire and colleagues David Catling, a UW affiliate professor in atmospheric sciences, and Kevin Zahnle of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center in California will discuss their model tomorrow (Aug. 9) in Calgary, Alberta, during the Geological Society of America’s Earth System Processes 2 meeting.

Earth’s oxygen supply originated with cyanobacteria, tiny water-dwelling organisms that survive by photosynthesis. In that process, the bacteria convert carbon dioxide and water into organic carbon and free oxygen. But Claire noted that on the early Earth, free oxygen would quickly combine with an abundant element, hydrogen or carbon for instance, to form other compounds, and so free oxygen did not build up in the atmosphere very readily. Methane, a combination of carbon and hydrogen, became a dominant atmospheric gas.

With a sun much fainter and cooler than today, methane buildup warmed the planet to the point that life could survive. But methane was so abundant that it filled the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where such compounds are very rare today. There, ultraviolet exposure caused the methane to decompose and its freed hydrogen escaped into space, Claire said.

The loss of hydrogen atoms to space allowed increasingly greater amounts of free oxygen to oxidize the crust. Over time, that slowly diminished the amount of hydrogen released from the crust by the combination of pressure and temperature that formed the rocks in the crust.

"About 2.4 billion years ago, the long-term geologic sources of oxygen outweighed the sinks in a somewhat permanent fashion," Claire said. "Escaping to space is the only permanent escape that we envision for the hydrogen, and that drove the planet to a higher oxygen level."

The model developed by Claire, Catling and Zahnle indicates that as hydrogen atoms stripped from methane escaped into space, greenhouse conditions caused by the methane blanket quickly collapsed. Earth’s average temperature likely cooled by about 30 degrees Celsius, or 54 degrees Fahrenheit, and oxygen was able to dominate the atmosphere because there was no longer an overabundance of hydrogen to consume the oxygen.

The work is funded by NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, both of which foster research to understand life in the universe by examining the limits of life on Earth.

"There is interest in this work not just to know how an oxygen atmosphere came about on Earth but to look for oxygen signatures for other Earth-like planets," Claire said.

Vince Stricherz | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.washington.edu

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Predicting unpredictability: Information theory offers new way to read ice cores
07.12.2016 | Santa Fe Institute

nachricht Sea ice hit record lows in November
07.12.2016 | University of Colorado at Boulder

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

NTU scientists build new ultrasound device using 3-D printing technology

07.12.2016 | Health and Medicine

The balancing act: An enzyme that links endocytosis to membrane recycling

07.12.2016 | Life Sciences

How to turn white fat brown

07.12.2016 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>