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The rise of oxygen and the hydrogen hourglass

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Kevin J. Zahnle, David C. Catling, Mark W. Claire

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Oxygenic photosynthesis appears to be necessary for an oxygen-rich atmosphere like Earth’s. But available geological and geochemical evidence suggest that at least 200 Myr, and possibly more than 700 Myr, elapsed between the advent of oxygenic photosynthesis and the establishment of an oxygen atmosphere. The interregnum implies that at least one other necessary condition for O2 needed to be met. Here we argue that the second condition was the oxidation of the surface and crust to the point where O2 became more stable than competing reduced gases such as CH4. The cause of Earth’s surface oxidation would be the same cause as it is for other planets with oxidized surfaces: hydrogen escape to space. The duration of the interregnum would have been determined by the rate of hydrogen escape and by the size of the reduced reservoir that needed to be oxidized before O2 became favored. We suggest that continental growth has been influenced by hydrogen escape, and we speculate that, if there must be an external bias to biological evolution, hydrogen escape can be that bias.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-34
Number of pages9
JournalChemical Geology
Issue number0
Early online date16 Aug 2013
StatePublished - 2013

    Research areas

  • Oxygen , Hydrogen escape , Atmospheric evolution , Oxygenation , Evolution

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