COLUMBUS, Ohio – Researchers studying the origin of Earth's first breathable atmosphere have zeroed in on the major role played by some very unassuming creatures: plankton.
In a paper to appear in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Ohio State University researcher Matthew Saltzman and his colleagues show how plankton provided a critical link between the atmosphere and chemical isotopes stored in rocks 500 million years ago.
This work builds on the team's earlier discovery that upheavals in the earth's crust initiated a kind of reverse-greenhouse effect 500 million years ago that cooled the world's oceans, spawned giant plankton blooms, and sent a burst of oxygen into the atmosphere.
The new study has revealed details as to how oxygen came to vanish from Earth's ancient atmosphere during the Cambrian Period, only to return at higher levels than ever before.
It also hints at how, after mass extinctions, the returning oxygen allowed enormous amounts of new life to flourish.
Saltzman and his team were able to quantify how much oxygen was released into the atmosphere at the time, and directly link the amount of sulfur in the ancient oceans with atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide.
The result is a clearer picture of life on Earth in a time of extreme turmoil.
"We know that oxygen levels in the ocean dropped dramatically [a condition called anoxia] during the Cambrian, and that coincides with the time of a global extinction," said Saltzman, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Plankton key to origin of Earth's atmosphere.