Atmospheric Oxygen Variation Over the Last 100 Million Years
Abstract:There is no agreement over how atmospheric oxygen has varied over recent Earth history. Our knowledge of past O2 concentrations relies on biogeochemical modelling, constrained by geochemical data and proxies. There are however few direct indicators of oxygen concentrations, though the presence of fossil charcoal indicates that levels have not strayed outside the “fire window”, say below 16% or above 35%, during the last hundred million years. Different model predictions encompass both decreasing and increasing trends over this period however. These predictions are sensitive to weathering of continental rocks, which provide a sink for O2, but also a supply of phosphorus and sediment to the ocean, both of which increase carbon burial and thereby provide an oxygen source.
Here we update our COPSE model with a more detailed treatment than hitherto, incorporating new input data, seafloor weathering processes, and different compositions and weatherability of granites and basalts. Our model suggests a broadly declining O2 trend over the late Mesozoic to present. An alternative forcing uses the phosphorus deposition curve of Follmi (1995), which is constructed from P measurements in ocean cores, and indicates P fluxes to the oceans that have varied over time by two orders of magnitude. Used to drive the model this also results in a declining long-term trend for atmospheric O2 over the last hundred million years, but with dramatic shorter-term variations superposed on the trend. These however stay (just) within the “fire window” for oxygen concentrations, and can be tentatively related to the evolution of fire adaptations in plants.