The late Precambrian greening of the Earth

L. Paul Knauth, Martin J. Kennedy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

476 Citations (Scopus)


Many aspects of the carbon cycle can be assessed from temporal changes in the 13 C/ 12 C ratio of oceanic bicarbonate. 13 C/ 12 C can temporarily rise when large amounts of 13 C-depleted photosynthetic organic matter are buried at enhanced rates, and can decrease if phytomass is rapidly oxidized or if low 13 C is rapidly released from methane clathrates. Assuming that variations of the marine 13 C/ 12 C ratio are directly recorded in carbonate rocks, thousands of carbon isotope analyses of late Precambrian examples have been published to correlate these otherwise undatable strata and to document perturbations to the carbon cycle just before the great expansion of metazoan life. Low 13 C/ 12 C in some Neoproterozoic carbonates is considered evidence of carbon cycle perturbations unique to the Precambrian. These include complete oxidation of all organic matter in the ocean and complete productivity collapse such that low- 13 C/ 12 C hydrothermal CO 2 becomes the main input of carbon. Here we compile all published oxygen and carbon isotope data for Neoproterozoic marine carbonates, and consider them in terms of processes known to alter the isotopic composition during transformation of the initial precipitate into limestone/dolostone. We show that the combined oxygen and carbon isotope systematics are identical to those of well-understood Phanerozoic examples that lithified in coastal pore fluids, receiving a large groundwater influx of photosynthetic carbon from terrestrial phytomass. Rather than being perturbations to the carbon cycle, widely reported decreases in 13 C/ 12 C in Neoproterozoic carbonates are more easily interpreted in the same way as is done for Phanerozoic examples. This influx of terrestrial carbon is not apparent in carbonates older than 850 Myr, so we infer an explosion of photosynthesizing communities on late Precambrian land surfaces. As a result, biotically enhanced weathering generated carbon-bearing soils on a large scale and their detrital sedimentation sequestered carbon. This facilitated a rise in O 2 necessary for the expansion of multicellular life.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)728-732
Number of pages5
Issue number7256
Publication statusPublished - 6 Aug 2009
Externally publishedYes


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