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Photochemical modelling of atmospheric oxygen levels confirms two stable states

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Various proxies and numerical models have been used to constrain O2 levels over geological time, but considerable uncertainty remains. Previous investigations using 1-D photochemical models have predicted how O3 concentrations vary with assumed ground-level O2 concentrations, and indicate how the ozone layer might have developed over Earth history. These classic models have utilised the numerical simplification of fixed mixing ratio boundary conditions. Critically, this modelling assumption requires verification that predicted fluxes of biogenic and volcanic gases are realistic, but also that the resulting steady states are in fact stable equilibrium solutions against trivial changes in flux.

Here, we use a 1-D photochemical model with fixed flux boundary conditions to simulate the effects on O3 and O2 concentrations as O2 (and CH4) fluxes are systematically varied. Our results suggest that stable equilibrium solutions exist for trace- and high-O2/O3 cases, separated by a region of instability. In particular, the model produces few stable solutions with ground O2 mixing ratios between 6×10-7 and 2×10-3 (3×10-6 and 1% of present atmospheric levels). A fully UV-shielding ozone layer only exists in the high-O2 states. Our atmospheric modelling supports prior work suggesting a rapid bimodal transition between reducing and oxidising conditions, and proposes Proterozoic oxygen levels higher than some recent proxies suggest. We show that the boundary conditions of photochemical models matter, and should be chosen and explained with care.


Original languageEnglish
Article number116818
Number of pages12
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date23 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2021

    Research areas

  • 1-D photochemical modelling, Atmospheric evolution, Oxygen, Ozone, Methane, Proterozoic

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