The composition of Earth's paleoatmosphere can be inferred today from the study of the abundance of proxy materials such as iron oxides, charcoal and the stomatal density of fossil leaves in geological deposits. Although today's atmosphere is dominated by nitrogen (about 78%), oxygen (about 21%), and argon (about 1%), the pre-biological atmosphere is thought to have been highly reducing, to have contained virtually no free oxygen, virtually no argon, which is generated by the radioactive decay of 40K, and to have been dominated by nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane.
Appreciable concentrations of free oxygen were probably not present until about 2.5 billion years ago. After the Great Oxygenation Event, quantities of oxygen produced as a by-product of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria or blue-green algae began to exceed the quantities of chemically reducing materials, notably dissolved iron. By the beginning of the Cambrian period 541 million years ago, free oxygen concentrations had increased sufficiently to enable the evolution of multicellular organisms. Following the subsequent appearance, rapid evolution and radiation of land plants, which covered much of the Earth's land surface, beginning about 450 million years ago, oxygen concentrations reached and later exceeded current values during the early Carboniferous, when atmospheric CO2 was drawn down below current concentrations.This may have contributed to the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse during the Moscovian and Kasimovian stages of the Pennsylvanian subperiod.
- RA Berner (1998) The carbon cycle and CO2 over Phanerozoic time: the role of land plants. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 353, 75-82
- RA Berner (1997) The rise of plants: their effect on weathering and atmospheric CO2. Science, 276, 544-546.
- DJ Beerling and RA Berner (2005) Feedbacks and the coevolution of plants and atmospheric CO2. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 102, 1302-1305.
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