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A 200-million-year delay in permanent atmospheric oxygenation


The rise of atmospheric oxygen fundamentally changed the chemistry of surficial environments and the nature of Earth’s habitability1. Early atmospheric oxygenation occurred over a protracted period of extreme climatic instability marked by multiple global glaciations2,3, with the initial rise of oxygen concentration to above 10−5 of the present atmospheric level constrained to about 2.43 billion years ago4,5. Subsequent fluctuations in atmospheric oxygen levels have, however, been reported to have occurred until about 2.32 billion years ago4, which represents the estimated timing of irreversible oxygenation of the atmosphere6,7. Here we report a high-resolution reconstruction of atmospheric and local oceanic redox conditions across the final two glaciations of the early Palaeoproterozoic era, as documented by marine sediments from the Transvaal Supergroup, South Africa. Using multiple sulfur isotope and iron–sulfur–carbon systematics, we demonstrate continued oscillations in atmospheric oxygen levels after about 2.32 billion years ago that are linked to major perturbations in ocean redox chemistry and climate. Oxygen levels thus fluctuated across the threshold of 10−5 of the present atmospheric level for about 200 million years, with permanent atmospheric oxygenation finally arriving with the Lomagundi carbon isotope excursion at about 2.22 billion years ago, some 100 million years later than currently estimated.

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Fig. 1: Simplified Palaeoproterozoic stratigraphy of the Eastern Transvaal Basin, South Africa, showing the studied interval.
Fig. 2: Geochemical and isotopic profiles for drill cores EBA-1 and EBA-2.
Fig. 3: Multiple-sulfur isotope systematics and summary of atmospheric and oceanic redox conditions.
Fig. 4: Compilation of Δ33S data and simplified carbonate C isotope (δ13C) trends for the 2.5–2.0 Ga time interval.

Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article and its Supplementary Information.


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S.W.P. acknowledges support from a Leverhulme Research Fellowship and a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award. A.B. acknowledges support from the University of Johannesburg in the form of a Distinguished Visiting Professorship. D.T.J. acknowledges support from a NASA Exobiology award (NNX15AP58G). We thank R. Walshaw for assistance with SEM analyses.

Author information




S.W.P., A.B. and D.E.C. designed the research, S.W.P., A.B. and A.L.Z. collected samples, and S.W.P., V.M.C. and D.T.J. performed analyses. S.W.P. wrote the manuscript, with contributions from all co-authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon W. Poulton.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Bryan Killingsworth, Lee Kump and Sune Nielsen for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Generalized stratigraphic correlation between the Transvaal/Griqualand (South Africa), Hamersley (Pilbara, Western Australia) and Huronian (Ontario, Canada) successions.

Figure adapted from ref. 46 with permission from Elsevier. The exact stratigraphic position of the loss of MIF-S in the Huronian Basin is uncertain53,69 and hence not shown.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Geochemical data for the lower part of the Pretoria Group.

Dashed lines on FeHR*/FeT plots represent the boundaries for distinguishing oxic and anoxic deposition, and on Fepy/FeHR* plots represent the boundaries for distinguishing ferruginous and euxinic water-column conditions38. Dashed lines on Δ33S plots are at −0.3‰ and +0.3‰.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Scanning electron microscope images of pyrite and Fe oxide morphologies.

A, EBA-2, Rooihoogte Formation, 1,346.2 m. Sample deposited under oxic conditions; Δ33S = +2.16‰. B, EBA-1, Rooihoogte Formation, 1,168 m. Sample deposited under oxic conditions; Δ33S = +1.77‰. C, EBA-1, Timeball Hill Formation, 1,137 m. Sample deposited under ferruginous conditions; Δ33S = +1.44‰. D, EBA-2, Rooihoogte Formation, 1,335.6 m. Sample deposited under ferruginous conditions; Δ33S = +0.25‰. E, EBA-2, Rooihoogte Formation, 1,338.3 m. Sample deposited under euxinic conditions; Δ33S = +0.17‰. F, EBA-1, Timeball Hill Formation, 706 m. Water-column redox state not analysed; Δ33S = +1.61‰.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Sulfur isotope trends for Rooihoogte–Timeball Hill Formation samples.

A, Orthogonal data regression for samples with MIF-S (Δ33S > 0.3‰), showing the calculated Δ36S/Δ33S slope (blue line) and 3σ confidence interval (shaded blue area). Samples from above the Rooihoogte Formation are denoted as open blue circles. B, Orthogonal data regression for MDF-S samples (Δ33S = –0.3‰ to +0.3‰, showing the calculated Δ36S/Δ33S slope (red line) and 3σ confidence interval (shaded red area).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Sulfur isotope data from Fennoscandia5 and Western Australia21,22.

Blue dashed lines represent the range for the ARA23,24 (−0.9 ± 0.1; 1σ). ‘Perturbed slope range’ represents the maximum deviation from the standard ARA due to temporal effects of either enhanced methane-derived organic haze39,65,66 or volcanic sulfur input67.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Simplified geological map of the Transvaal Supergroup outcrop area.

Figure adapted from ref. 70, Springer Nature.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Ocean redox data for EBA-1.

The dashed line on the Fe/Al plot represents the upper boundary for distinguishing anoxia37 and on the FePRS/Al plot the Phanerozoic average68. Dashed lines on the FeHR/FeT and FeHR*/FeT plots distinguish oxic and anoxic deposition38. Dashed lines on the FePRS plot represent the average Phanerozic range (1.80 ± 0.85 wt%; 1σ)68.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Ocean redox data for EBA-2.

The dashed line on the Fe/Al plot represents the upper boundary for distinguishing anoxia37 and on the FePRS/Al plot the Phanerozoic average68. Dashed lines on the FeHR/FeT and FeHR*/FeT plots distinguish oxic and anoxic deposition38. Dashed lines on the FePRS plot represent the average Phanerozic range (1.80 ± 0.85 wt%; 1σ)68.

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Poulton, S.W., Bekker, A., Cumming, V.M. et al. A 200-million-year delay in permanent atmospheric oxygenation. Nature 592, 232–236 (2021).

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