We May Have Had a Breathable Atmosphere For Much Longer Than We Thought

Don’t hold your breath, but geologists at the University of Aberdeen may have made a ground-breaking discovery; evidence of a breathable, hospitable atmosphere hundreds of millions of years sooner than originally thought. This could have staggering implications for life not just on Earth, but beyond.

Though oxygen has been known to exist on earth for over three billion years, it was only 600 million years ago that the air became breathable. OR SO WE THOUGHT. A new study published in the no-nonsense-named Geology has shown evidence of breathable air much sooner than that. Air bubbles trapped inside 815-million-year old grains of rock salt have produced measurements of an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

The oxygen found within ranged from 10.3% to 13.1%. A far cry from our current ~21% oxygen level in our air. Still, those percentages are more than five times higher than previously estimated for that era. And certainly would have been enough for some animal life to thrive.

“I think our results will take people by surprise,” said Nigel Blamey, co-author of the study. “We came out of left field, and I think some people are going to embrace it, and other people are going to be very sceptical. But the data is what the data is.”

So, potentially our planet has had 215 million more years of breathable oxygen than we thought. And yet, as far as we know, the rise of the animal kingdom didn’t occur any earlier. So what was happening for 215 million years on Earth before complex life came to be? Perhaps complex life has existed for longer than we expected, and that’s something paleontologists need to look into. Or perhaps there are more conditions than we realize before complex life can thrive. Either way there’s a lot more to learn about this little blue rock of ours.