Ocean Ridges and Oxygen

Friday, 19 December 2014: 2:55 PM
Charles H Langmuir, Harvard Univ, Cambridge, MA, United States
The history of oxygen and the fluxes and feedbacks that lead to its evolution through time remain poorly constrained. It is not clear whether oxygen has had discrete steady state levels at different times in Earth’s history, or whether oxygen evolution is more progressive, with trigger points that lead to discrete changes in markers such as mass independent sulfur isotopes. Whatever this history may have been, ocean ridges play an important and poorly recognized part in the overall mass balance of oxidants and reductants that contribute to electron mass balance and the oxygen budget. One example is the current steady state O2 in the atmosphere. The carbon isotope data suggest that the fraction of carbon has increased in the Phanerozoic, and CO2 outgassing followed by organic matter burial should continually supply more O2 to the surface reservoirs. Why is O2 not then increasing? A traditional answer to this question would relate to variations in the fraction of burial of organic matter, but this fraction appears to have been relatively high throughout the Phanerozoic. Furthermore, subduction of carbon in the 1/5 organic/carbonate proportions would contribute further to an increasingly oxidized surface. What is needed is a flux of oxidized material out of the system. One solution would be a modern oxidized flux to the mantle. The current outgassing flux of CO2 is ~3.4*1012 moles per year. If 20% of that becomes stored organic carbon, that is a flux of .68*1012 moles per year of reduced carbon. The current flux of oxidized iron in subducting ocean crust is ~2*1012 moles per year of O2 equivalents, based on the Fe3+/Fe2+ ratios in old ocean crust compared to fresh basalts at the ridge axis. This flux more than accounts for the incremental oxidizing power produced by modern life. It also suggests a possible feedback through oxygenation of the ocean. A reduced deep ocean would inhibit oxidation of ocean crust, in which case there would be no subduction flux of oxidized material, and oxygen could rise. Once the ocean becomes fully oxidized, a substantial subduction flux operates as a negative feedback. Plate tectonic geochemical cycles may have played a very significant role in the oxygen balance in both the ancient and modern Earth.