The oxygen cycle is the biogeochemical cycle of oxygen atoms between different oxidation states in ions, oxides, and molecules through redox reactions within and between the spheres/reservoirs of the planet Earth. The word oxygen in the literature typically refers to the most common oxygen allotrope, elemental/diatomic oxygen (O2), as it is a common product or reactant of many biogeochemical redox reactions within the cycle. Processes within the oxygen cycle are considered to be biological or geological and are evaluated as either a source (O2 production) or sink (O2 consumption).
Oxygen is one of the most abundant elements on Earth and represents a large portion of each main reservoir. By far the largest reservoir of Earth's oxygen is within the silicate and oxide minerals of the crust and mantle (99.5% by weight). The Earth's atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere together hold less than 0.05% of the Earth's total mass of oxygen. Besides O2, additional oxygen atoms are present in various forms spread throughout the surface reservoirs in the molecules of biomass, H2O, CO2, HNO3, NO, NO2, CO, H2O2, O3, SO2, H2SO4, MgO, CaO, AlO, SiO2, and PO4.
The atmosphere is 20.9% oxygen by volume, which equates to a total of roughly 34 × 1018 mol of oxygen. Other oxygen-containing molecules in the atmosphere include ozone (O3), carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor (H2O), and sulphur and nitrogen oxides (SO2, NO, N2O, etc.).
The biosphere is 22% oxygen by volume present mainly as a component of organic molecules (CxHxNxOx) and water molecules.
The lithosphere is 46.6% oxygen by volume present mainly as silica minerals (SiO2) and other oxide minerals.
Sources and sinks
While there are many abiotic sources and sinks for O2, the presence of the profuse concentration of free oxygen in modern Earth's atmosphere and ocean is attributed to O2 production from the biological process of oxygenic photosynthesis in conjunction with a biological sink known as the biological pump and a geologic process of carbon burial involving plate tectonics. Biology is the main driver of O2 flux on modern Earth, and the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis by bacteria, which is discussed as part of The Great Oxygenation Event, is thought to be directly responsible for the conditions permitting the development and existence of all complex eukaryotic metabolism.
The main source of atmospheric free oxygen is photosynthesis, which produces sugars and free oxygen from carbon dioxide and water:
Photosynthesizing organisms include the plant life of the land areas as well as the phytoplankton of the oceans. The tiny marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus was discovered in 1986 and accounts for up to half of the photosynthesis of the open ocean.
An additional source of atmospheric free oxygen comes from photolysis, whereby high-energy ultraviolet radiation breaks down atmospheric water and nitrous oxide into component atoms. The free H and [clarify] escape into space, leaving O2 in the atmosphere:
Capacities and fluxes
The following tables offer estimates of oxygen cycle reservoir capacities and fluxes. These numbers are based primarily on estimates from (Walker, J. C. G.):
(kg O2 per year)
Table 2: Annual gain and loss of atmospheric oxygen (Units of 1010 kg O2 per year)
Photolysis of N2O
Photolysis of H2O
|Total gains||~ 30,000|
|Losses - respiration and decay|
Combustion of fossil fuel (anthropogenic)
Fixation of N2 by lightning
Fixation of N2 by industry (anthropogenic)
Oxidation of volcanic gases
|Losses - weathering|
Surface reaction of O3
|Total losses||~ 30,000|
- O + O2 :- O3
The ozone layer is extremely important to modern life as it absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation:
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