Home Science Environment Exploring the Evolution of Earth's Habitability Regulated by the Oxygen Cycle

Exploring the Evolution of Earth’s Habitability Regulated by the Oxygen Cycle

A recent review provides a systematic overview of the latest advances in the oxygen cycle at different spatial and temporal scales and the important role that oxygen plays in shaping our current habitable Earth. As an essential material for the survival and reproduction of almost all aerobic organisms, oxygen is closely related to the formation and development of complex organisms.

Professor Jianping Huang from Lanzhou University is the corresponding author of the review entitled The oxygen cycle and a habitable Earth, which is the cover article of the 64(4) of SCIENCE CHINA Earth Sciences in 2021. Based on summarizing the latest research results of predecessors, the authors of this paper propose a coupling model of the five spheres of the earth system with the oxygen cycle as the core, and clarifying the link role of the oxygen cycle in it.

The authors of this paper propose a coupling model of the five spheres of the earth system with the oxygen cycle as the core, and clarifying the link role of the oxygen cycle in it.

In this paper, the authors comprehensively summarized the changes of the oxygen cycle and its effect on the habitability of the Earth on multiple timescales, including modern and geological time, and prospected the future development trend of oxygen cycle research. Professor Jianping Huang of Lanzhou University, the corresponding author of the paper, pointed out:

“We take O2 for granted because it is just there and we breathe it all the time, yet it took billions of years before there was enough of it to keep animals like us alive. These processes involve the interaction of various spheres of the Earth system, which are complex interdisciplinary issues with multiple temporal and spatial scales.”

Studies of the oxygen cycle cover a wide span of timescales from daily to geologic scales. The oxygen cycles of different timescales dominate the control of atmospheric O2 over the corresponding timescales. However, a distinct boundary that divides the long-term and short-term oxygen cycles has yet to be established, and the complex interactions between the short-term and long-term processes remain unclear. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Key biochemical processes in the oxygen cycle

In this paper, the authors illustrate how the key biochemical processes in the oxygen cycle tie together the various spheres of the Earth system through feedback and interaction. “A habitable Earth gradually formed during the long evolution of the oxygen cycle.” The effects of current human activities on the oxygen cycle and biodiversity are also discussed. Professor Huang said:

“Four of the five large-scale species extinctions that have occurred in the history of the earth are related to the lack of oxygen. At present, under the compulsion of human activities, our planet is experiencing a large-scale oxygen reduction, with the ocean deoxygenation as a representative. The oxygen cycle of the Earth system is gradually out of balance, which is very worrying.”

Studies of the oxygen cycle cover a wide span of timescales from daily to geologic scales. The oxygen cycles of different timescales dominate the control of atmospheric O2 over the corresponding timescales. However, a distinct boundary that divides the long-term and short-term oxygen cycles has yet to be established, and the complex interactions between the short-term and long-term processes remain unclear. Since the Earth system is a highly non-linear and strongly coupled system, a minor perturbation can have the potential to cause a series of dramatic changes. Prof. Huang said:

“It is a top priority to connect the short-term and long-term oxygen cycles under a comparable timescale rather than separating them. Effective multidisciplinary cooperation among the subdisciplines of Earth sciences (geology, oceanography, atmospheric sciences, paleobiology, etc.), and social sciences should be promoted to reveal the hidden mechanisms that control the trajectory of the Earth system and how the trajectory may influence the future of human beings.”

Fortunately, efforts have been made to reverse the decline of atmospheric O2. In China, the Green Great Wall, which was designed to mitigate desertification and expand forests has achieved overall success in past decades. Reductions in carbon emission and its related O2 consumption have been achieved in some major cities around the world.

This study has far-reaching scientific significance and important reference value for understanding the potential link between the oxygen cycle and the biodiversity in geological history and exploring the historical evolution and future of the Earth’s habitability.

Provided by: Science China Press [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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  • Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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