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Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History

Donald Eugene Canfield
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 224
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    Book Description:

    The air we breathe is twenty-one percent oxygen, an amount higher than on any other known world. While we may take our air for granted, Earth was not always an oxygenated planet. How did it become this way?Oxygenis the most current account of the history of atmospheric oxygen on Earth. Donald Canfield--one of the world's leading authorities on geochemistry, earth history, and the early oceans--covers this vast history, emphasizing its relationship to the evolution of life and the evolving chemistry of the Earth. With an accessible and colorful first-person narrative, he draws from a variety of fields, including geology, paleontology, geochemistry, biochemistry, animal physiology, and microbiology, to explain why our oxygenated Earth became the ideal place for life.

    Describing which processes, both biological and geological, act to control oxygen levels in the atmosphere, Canfield traces the records of oxygen concentrations through time. Readers learn about the great oxidation event, the tipping point 2.3 billion years ago when the oxygen content of the Earth increased dramatically, and Canfield examines how oxygenation created a favorable environment for the evolution of large animals. He guides readers through the various lines of scientific evidence, considers some of the wrong turns and dead ends along the way, and highlights the scientists and researchers who have made key discoveries in the field.

    Showing how Earth's atmosphere developed over time,Oxygentakes readers on a remarkable journey through the history of the oxygenation of our planet.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4988-8
    Subjects: General Science, Physics, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    Don Canfield
  5. CHAPTER 1 What Is It about Planet Earth?
    (pp. 1-12)

    I’m sitting on the train, as I often do, traveling between Odense and Copenhagen. We’ve just pulled from the stop at Ringsted. I look out the window. The scene is typical Danish countryside of mixed farmland and forest. I pass cows grazing lazily in the field, and beyond them, a farmer is cutting hay. High above, a hawk searches for mice in the uncut grass. I love this landscape. It reminds me of the Ohio countryside where I grew up. Not spectacular, but somehow comforting and reassuring; an honest landscape not prone to bragging or trickery. I squint, and the...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Life before Oxygen
    (pp. 13-25)

    It was literally the ride of my life. “Do you get claustrophobic?” the man asked. “No, not at all,” I lied.¹ “Good,” he replied, “and whatever you do, don’t touch the red handle. That’s used only in emergencies.” With a few more instructions, the hatch was closed, and we detached from the crane. We were left to bob freely in the ocean waves, and I waited in anticipation of our descent.

    I was sitting inAlvin, America’s premier deep-diving submersible. With me was my good friend and colleague Bo Barker Jørgensen, now at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, and...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Evolution of Oxygenic Photosynthesis
    (pp. 26-40)

    The race was on, but nobody really knew there was race, at least not at first. The year was 1771 (or maybe 1772), and the Swedish pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele was very busy indeed. Having just begun as laboratory assistant to the chemist Torbern Bergman of Uppsala, Scheele was immersed in unraveling the mysteries of air. His real motivation, however, was more boyish than this; he really wanted to understand the nature of fire. Scheele admitted, “one could not form any true judgment regarding the phenomena fire presents, without a knowledge of the air.”¹

    At this time in the history...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Cyanobacteria: The Great Liberators
    (pp. 41-55)

    Try to imagine something so profound, so fundamental, that it changed the whole world. Think of something so revolutionary, that it forever changed the chemistry of the atmosphere, the chemistry of oceans and the nature of life itself. What about the Great Plague, the Renaissance, or World War II? These were important events indeed, and they all changed the course of human culture, but their influence outside the human realm was small. What about the extinction that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, or the great Permian extinction some 250 million years ago, which laid waste to perhaps 95%...

  9. CHAPTER 5 What Controls Atmospheric Oxygen Concentrations?
    (pp. 56-71)

    Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Nice and relaxed. We each do this perhaps 20,000 times a day and we rarely give it any thought. I think more about breathing, however, if I travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with an elevation of 2100 meters (7200 ft.) above sea level. Just after arrival, I’m panting after a flight of stairs, and during a short run in the hills I huff and puff much more than usual. At this altitude, atmospheric pressure is about 77% as great as at sea level, meaning that for the same breath, we only...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Early History of Atmospheric Oxygen: Biological Evidence
    (pp. 72-84)

    The twelfth-century French philosopher Bernard of Chartres is quoted as saying:

    We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up their giant size.¹

    This sentiment has endured the centuries, and is as true today as it was 900 years ago. In this chapter we begin our discussion of the history of atmospheric oxygen through geologic time (see fig. P.1 for the geologic...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. CHAPTER 7 The Early History of Atmospheric Oxygen: Geological Evidence
    (pp. 85-97)

    When I was PhD student, and just becoming interested in the history of atmospheric oxygen, it seemed that unraveling this history was the place for dreamers and hobbyists, not the place for serious scientists to waste their time. It seemed that anyone with a wacky idea could migrate into the field, deliver the idea, and then quickly retreat. The constraints were few, so even crazy ideas could find an ear.

    This picture, of course, is an exaggeration. There were a few very serious scientists desperate to reveal the history of atmospheric oxygen on ancient Earth, and one of them was...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Great Oxidation
    (pp. 98-109)

    The year was 1990, and I was invited to interview for a job at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Academic interviews are grueling affairs. They typically occupy two full days of discussions with faculty members, and everyone is looking for some superhuman mix of intellectual and teaching brilliance. This, combined with the right personality and interests to bind together disparate factions of the department who have not spoken in years. As usual for such an interview, I gave a departmental seminar where I discussed my work and presented some ideas as to where my work might lead in the...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Earth’s Middle Ages: What Came after the GOE
    (pp. 110-122)

    Isn’t it everyone’s dream to travel in a time machine? Well, maybe not everyone’s, but most geologists I know would love to get their hands on one. Of relevance for the story here, we could directly test with a time machine if our ideas about the history of atmospheric oxygen are correct. We’ve pieced this story together from our reading of the geologic record, but as mentioned before, this record gives an imperfect view of the past. We pick up a rock, a piece of ancient sediment that was once mud on the seafloor; maybe it’s been heated, altering the...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Neoproterozoic Oxygen and The Rise of Animals
    (pp. 123-137)

    The Avalon Peninsula of southeastern Newfoundland is a remarkable place. Carved from glacial ice, its rugged terrain was further sculpted by wind, rain, and the sea. On the Avalon Peninsula you never feel far from the sea. It’s also a place of tradition, old tradition. Already in 1534, the noted French navigator Jacques Cartier commented that the fish were so thick off the Newfoundland coast that “they slowed our ships in the water.” He was not the first, however, to note the abundance of fish, and fishing settlements were already established on the Avalon Peninsula in the early 1500s. A...

  16. CHAPTER 11 Phanerozoic Oxygen
    (pp. 138-152)

    I applied to five graduate schools in all, and four of them were in the Northeast: Columbia University, Yale University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Rhode Island. I figured I could visit them all if I took about 10 days or so. So, I packed my VW bus with a sleeping bag, a few things to eat and drink, and set out on a road trip from my apartment in Oxford, Ohio. At Columbia, or more precisely the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory (now called Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), I was scheduled to meet with the eminent oceanographer Wally Broecker....

  17. CHAPTER 12 Epilogue
    (pp. 153-158)

    This has been a long journey. In the end, I hope we can agree that Earth is a pretty special place. It sits at a distance from the Sun that places us in the habitable zone, allowing the persistence of liquid water. This persistence is aided by active temperature regulation, which is promoted through the relationship between atmospheric CO₂ levels, CO₂ degassing from the mantle, and the temperature control of weathering. This temperature control is also driven by plate tectonics; the same plate tectonics also drives the recycling of materials crucial to life and crucial to the liberation of oxygen...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 159-174)
    (pp. 175-188)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 189-196)