Earth's air pressure 2.7 billion years ago constrained to less than half of modern levels

S.M. Som, R. Buick, J.W. Hagadorn, Timothy Blake, J.M. Perreault, J.P. Harnmeijer, D.C. Catling

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    117 Citations (Scopus)


    © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited.How the Earth stayed warm several billion years ago when the Sun was considerably fainter is the long-standing problem of the 'faint young Sun paradox'. Because of negligible O2 and only moderate CO2 levels in the Archaean atmosphere, methane has been invoked as an auxiliary greenhouse gas. Alternatively, pressure broadening in a thicker atmosphere with a N2 partial pressure around 1.6-2.4 bar could have enhanced the greenhouse effect. But fossilized raindrop imprints indicate that air pressure 2.7 billion years ago (Gyr) was below twice modern levels and probably below 1.1 bar, precluding such pressure enhancement. This result is supported by nitrogen and argon isotope studies of fluid inclusions in 3.0-3.5 Gyr rocks. Here, we calculate absolute Archaean barometric pressure using the size distribution of gas bubbles in basaltic lava flows that solidified at sea level ∼2.7 Gyr in the Pilbara Craton, Australia. Our data indicate a surprisingly low surface atmospheric pressure of P atm = 0.23 ± 0.23 (2σ) bar, and combined with previous studies suggests ∼0.5 bar as an upper limit to late Archaean P atm. The result implies that the thin atmosphere was rich in auxiliary greenhouse gases and that P atm fluctuated over geologic time to a previously unrecognized extent.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)448-451
    Number of pages4
    JournalNature Geoscience
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


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