Mercury abundance and isotopic composition indicate subaerial volcanism prior to the end-Archean “whiff” of oxygen

Jana Meixnerová, Joel D. Blum, Marcus W. Johnson, Eva E. Stüeken, Michael A. Kipp, Ariel D. Anbar, Roger Buick

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30 Citations (Scopus)


Earth’s early atmosphere witnessed multiple transient episodes of oxygenation before the Great Oxidation Event 2.4 billion years ago (Ga) [e.g., A. D. Anbar et al., Science 317, 1903–1906 (2007); M. C. Koehler, R. Buick, M. E. Barley, Precambrian Res. 320, 281–290 (2019)], but the triggers for these short-lived events are so far unknown. Here, we use mercury (Hg) abundance and stable isotope composition to investigate atmospheric evolution and its driving mechanisms across the well-studied “whiff” of O2 recorded in the ∼2.5-Ga Mt. McRae Shale from the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia [A. D. Anbar et al., Science 317, 1903–1906 (2007)]. Our data from the oxygenated interval show strong Hg enrichment paired with slightly negative Δ199Hg and near-zero Δ200Hg, suggestive of increased oxidative weathering. In contrast, slightly older beds, which were evidently deposited under an anoxic atmosphere in ferruginous waters [C. T. Reinhard, R. Raiswell, C. Scott, A. D. Anbar, T. W. Lyons, Science 326, 713–716 (2009)], show Hg enrichment coupled with positive Δ199Hg and slightly negative Δ200Hg values. This pattern is consistent with photochemical reactions associated with subaerial volcanism under intense UV radiation. Our results therefore suggest that the whiff of O2 was preceded by subaerial volcanism. The transient interval of O2 accumulation may thus have been triggered by diminished volcanic O2 sinks, followed by enhanced nutrient supply to the ocean from weathering of volcanic rocks causing increased biological productivity.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2107511118
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number33
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2021


  • Archean
  • Atmospheric oxygenation
  • Mercury isotopes


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