I have two questions based on the history of atmospheric oxygen levels depicted below.

graph of oxygen concentration in the Earth's atmosphere over time, from wikipedia commons
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sauerstoffgehalt-1000mj2.png.

The notes below the chart explain most of the changes in the past Gya.

  1. What they don't explain, however, is why oxygen has declined for the last ~100 Mya. For example, is this explicable in terms of volcanism?

  2. They do explain the Permian decline in terms of volcanic activity, but why do volcanoes affect oxygen levels?

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    $\begingroup$ I would take that graph with a pinch of salt. Past atmospheric oxygen levels are notoriously difficult to determine. $\endgroup$
    – bon
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ @bon The notes mention that, but both declines do appear to be real. $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ Echillibrium is complex at CO2 Ch4 and O2 atmospheric system. The fall 100 Mya may be related with Alpine Orogeny. $\endgroup$
    – user12525
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Universal_learner Yeah; they cite the sources they averaged, but they don't, for example, say how they averaged them. (I do hope it was done in a variance-minimising way, but I suspect they weren't that smart.) $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Universal_learner - The graph in the question needs a huge grain of salt. The End Permian event was 252 MYA. One conjectured consequence of the massive eruption of the Siberian traps that is widely thought to have triggered the End Permian is that the immense quantities of lava, about 4 million cubic kilometers of it, triggered fires in coal deposits. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2018 at 18:01

2 Answers 2


Here's a somewhat different looking graph, from Oxygen and Evolution, Robert A. Berner et al., Science 316, 557 (2007):

Graph depicting estimates of the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere over the last 550 million years.

The graph shows three marked drops in O2 levels, each corresponding to an extinction event. These are intervals 4, 9, and 11. Interval 9, the largest such drop, represents the end Permian event about 252 million years ago. Interval 11 corresponds to the end Triassic event, 201 million years ago. The unsourced wikipedia graph linked in the question has at most a superficial resemblance to this sourced graph.

Now for your two questions.

What they don't explain, however, is why oxygen has declined for the last ~100 Mya. For example, is this explicable in terms of volcanism?

I would take even the sourced graph that I used with a grain of salt. That unsourced wikipedia graph: A very large block of salt is needed.

They do explain the Permian decline in terms of volcanic activity, but why do volcanoes affect oxygen levels?

It is very widely conjectured that the end Permian extinction event was caused by the Siberian Traps. This extreme volcanism may have triggered coal fires, thereby reducing oxygen levels. This remains conjecture.

What isn't conjecture is that the end Permian event killed off almost all life extant at that time, including much of the algae and plants that produce oxygen. Without a continuous supply of new oxygen, oxygen sinks such as unweathered rock will inevitably result in a decline in oxygen levels.


enter image description hereAlmost 20 galactic years (each galactic year = 230 million solar years) have passed since birth of our sun, and three galactic years have passed since the remarkable formation of life on Earth when atmospheric oxygen concentration significantly increased (during the time period, we have orbited the Milky Way galaxy three times).

Depending on the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere and changes in life on Earth, each galactic year can be divided into almost regular "three seasons" each year, with oxygen increasing at different slopes in the first and second seasons and decreasing in the third.

As the Sun orbits the Milky Way, it enters and exits the galactic arms at some specific times, which may be the "probable" cause of these near-regular events of massive extinctions and changes in the concentration of atmospheric gases on Earth in each galactic year, due to significant increase in flux of incoming cosmic rays.

There are some main arms of milky way galaxy that sun goes through as travels around the center of the galaxy. When earth enters a galaxy arm, the constant heavy rain of cosmic rays (high-powered) hit our planet's atmosphere at nearly the speed of light. The very high energy cosmic rays break the strands of DNA molecules, damage genes and kill cells (resulting in cell mutations, death and extinction).

The cosmic rays also shatter air molecules high in our atmosphere, collide with atoms and molecules (mainly oxygen and nitrogen) or even split the molecules, and send atomic and subatomic particles showering down on Earth, so-called air shower secondary radiation.

The incoming cosmic rays by colliding with nitrogen molecules, the process replaces one of the 7 protons nitrogen contains with an extra neutron. The resulting atom, now containing 6 protons and 8 neutrons, is one of carbon 14. As result, nitrogen in the atmosphere changes to Carbon-14 by cosmic rays.The generated Carbon-14 (radioactive) then reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere and forms CO2 (as result of this process also, concentration of oxygen is reduced). The CO2 from Carbon-14 is then absorbed by the plants.

In addition, earth temperature may have also rised by increased flux of incoming cosmic rays, increasing water evaporation from oceans into atmosphere (air) that results in higher number of water molecules being spilt by the cosmic rays.

All these events changed the atmospheric gases concentration and life conditions on earth during traveling of sun into each arm of the galaxy.

However, future research will provide a more accurate answer to this question.

More information can be found here: 1- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256762257_Mass_Extinction_And_The_Structure_Of_The_Milky_Way 2- https://www.space.com/19915-milky-way-galaxy.html 3- https://www.radioactivity.eu.com/site/pages/RadioCarbon.htm

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    $\begingroup$ I assume you're only counting the Phanerozoic rather than the full history of Earth's life, but I'd appreciate if your answer gave some explanation of how or why our location in the galaxy affects the atmospheric origin levels. $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ I have added more details to my post (answer) that also covers more regarding your question. Also please note that my answer has looked into the last 3 galaxic years that had more information available. Please have a look at my answer above again. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ Your first paragraph still feels like it's trying to mention the Cambrian explosion in vague terms, but thanks for your edit, it explains things better. $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ You are welcome $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 11:32

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