The evolution of the atmosphere in the Archaean and early Proterozoic

E. G. Nisbet, C. M. R. Fowler

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Key steps in atmospheric evolution occurred in the Archaean. The Hadean atmosphere was created by the inorganic processes of volatile accretion from space and degassing from the interior, and then modified by chemical and photochemical processes. The air was probably initially anoxic, though there may have been a supply of oxidation power as a consequence of hydrodynamic
escape to space of hydrogen from water. Early subduction may have removed CO2 and the Hadean planet may have been icy. In the Archaean, as anoxygenic and then oxygenic photosynthesis evolved, biological activity remade the atmosphere. Sedimentological evidence implies there were liquid oceans despite the faint young Sun. These oceans may have been sustained by the greenhouse warming effect of biologically-made methane. Oxygenesis in the late Archaean would have released free O2 into the water. This would have created oxic surface waters, challenging the methane greenhouse. After the Great Oxidation Event around 2.3 to 2.4 billion years ago, the atmosphere itself became oxic, perhaps triggering a glacial crisis by cutting methane-caused greenhouse warming. By the early Proterozoic, all the key biochemical processes that maintain the modern atmosphere were probably present in the microbial community.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-13
Number of pages10
JournalChinese Science Bulletin
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011


  • Archean
  • Hadean
  • atmosphere evolution
  • photosynthesis
  • methane
  • stromatolite

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