Articles | Volume 14, issue 8
Research article
26 Apr 2017
Research article |  | 26 Apr 2017

The oxic degradation of sedimentary organic matter 1400 Ma constrains atmospheric oxygen levels

Shuichang Zhang, Xiaomei Wang, Huajian Wang, Emma U. Hammarlund, Jin Su, Yu Wang, and Donald E. Canfield

Abstract. We studied sediments from the ca. 1400 million-year-old Xiamaling Formation from the North China block. The upper unit of this formation (unit 1) deposited mostly below storm wave base and contains alternating black and green-gray shales with very distinct geochemical characteristics. The black shales are enriched in redox-sensitive trace metals, have high concentrations of total organic carbon (TOC), high hydrogen index (HI) and iron speciation indicating deposition under anoxic conditions. In contrast, the green-gray shales show no trace metal enrichments, have low TOC, low HI and iron speciation consistent with an oxygenated depositional setting. Altogether, unit 1 displays alternations between oxic and anoxic depositional environments, driving differences in carbon preservation consistent with observations from the modern ocean. We combined our TOC and HI results to calculate the differences in carbon mineralization and carbon preservation by comparing the oxygenated and anoxic depositional environments. Through comparisons of these results with modern sedimentary environments, and by use of a simple diagenetic model, we conclude that the enhanced carbon mineralization under oxygenated conditions in unit 1 of the Xiamaling Formation required a minimum of 4 to 8 % of present-day atmospheric levels (PAL) of oxygen. These oxygen levels are higher than estimates based on chromium isotopes and reinforce the idea that the environment contained enough oxygen for animals long before their evolution.

Final-revised paper