Oceanic anoxic events or anoxic events occur when the Earth's oceans become completely depleted of oxygen (O2) below the surface levels. Although anoxic events have not happened for millions of years, the geological record shows that they happened many times in the past. Anoxic events may have caused mass extinctions. These mass extinctions were so characteristic they include some of those which geobiologists employ to serve as a time marker in biostratigraphic dating. It is believed oceanic anoxic events are strongly linked to lapses in key oceanic current circulations, to climate warming and greenhouse gases.
What is clear from careful analysis of the geologic records occurring before and after the affected ages is that onsets are rapid and so are recoveries. Both sets of data suggests that a sudden climate threshold or tipping point occurs at about four times the Earth's mean carbon dioxide levels relative to the baseline concentrations of about 280 ppmv in circa 1750. This date is significant in that it is regarded as the beginning of the Industrial age. The strata analysis suggest that in the era the Earth had a predominantly overheated climate with steaming rain forests, heavy daily rains and violent storms. This relatively fierce global climate resulted in far heavier erosion, which in turn fed more nutrients into the world's waters. At the same time it caused deep water circulation between poles and equator to stop in a cataclysmic fashion. This obstruction in oceanic circulation led to 'death in the depths' from oxygen deprivation. The stagnation in circulation could not be offset by natural processes and became a source of mildly poisonous hydrogen sulfides. The stratified waters would support life insofar it was still oxygenated in a surface layer, but became a lethal mixture where life was impossible just a small bit deeper. The lower layers of ocean waters being toxic halted scavenger activity along the organically rich ooze, or sapropel, and all creatures that died in it drifted down and accumulated on the abyssal basins and bottoms. All these life forms unwarily drifting into anoxic and toxic layers would have died and contributed to the continual rain of unicellular microorganisms. This was effectively an explosion in life spurred by the increased nutrients from the super-greenhouse conditions, which was then killing itself in waste products. Ironically these deposits of sedimentary organic materials may have accumulated into lipid rich deposits. It is now widely believed that most of today's fossil oil reserves formed in several distinct anoxic events in earth's geologic history.
There are several places on earth right now that are exhibiting the features of an anoxic event, on a localized level, such as algae blooms and localized "dead zones". There is one such dead zone off the coast of Louisiana. Other dead zones exist in the East Coast of the United States in Chesapeake Bay, in the Scandinavian strait Kattegat, and in the Black Sea, (which may have been anoxic in its deepest levels for millennia, however) and in the northern Adriatic. The current surge of jellyfish worldwide are sometimes regarded as the first stirrings of an anoxic event. Other marine dead zones have apparently appeared in coastal waters of South America, China, Japan, and southeast Australia. A 2008 study counted 405 dead zones worldwide.
This is a recent understanding. This picture was only pieced together during the last three decades. The handful of known and suspected anoxic events have been tied geologically to large-scale production of the world's oil reserves, worldwide bands of black shale in the geologic record. Likewise the high relative temperatures believed linked to so called "super-greenhouse events" Oceanic anoxic events were in all likelihood caused or stimulated by extreme episodes of volcanic outgassing. These events contributed to the characteristic elevated carbon dioxide levels four to six times current levels that are attributed to these periods. At even a few degrees warmer, rain forests are extremely vulnerable to fire hazards. These forests have little natural resistance to fires, and some conjecture a critical tipping point. Practically overnight the increase of temperature might have been reached and triggered a huge burn-off of planetary forests. This would have released unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. With a change of mean temperatures of three degrees Celsius, the ice caps melted. This triggered a runaway effect. In the super-greenhouse ecologies—the term meaning average temperature rose to or beyond six degrees above today—the seas were so warm, it is believed the water temperatures at the two poles were in the lower 80s°F (i.e. above 27 °C). The Cretaceous and Jurassic eras world ecologies were essentially ice free, had massive storms driven by warm oceans, and were dying from the double hit of lack of oxygen and toxic hydrogen sulfide accumulations at lower layers because of a shut down in the ocean conveyor belts. In this time, most of the world would experience the highly noxious scent of rotten eggs and the seas would have slowly acquired a deep green hue from the high amounts of algae.
Oceanic anoxic events most commonly occurred during periods of very warm climate characterized by high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and mean surface temperatures probably in excess of 25 °C (77 °F). The Quaternary levels, our current period, are just 13 °C (55 °F) in comparison. Such rises in carbon dioxide may have been in response to a great outgassing of the highly flammable natural gas (methane) some have christened an "oceanic burp". Vast quantities of methane are normally locked into the Earth's crust on the continental plateaus in one of the many deposits consisting of compounds of methane hydrate, a solid precipitated combination of methane and water much like ice. Because the methane hydrates are unstable, save at cool temperatures and high (deep) pressures, scientists have observed smaller "burps" due to tectonic events. Studies suggest the huge release of natural gas could be a major climatological trigger, methane itself being a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. However, anoxia was also rife during the Hirnantian (late Ordovician) ice age.
Oceanic anoxic events have been recognized primarily from the already warm Cretaceous and Jurassic Periods, when numerous examples have been documented, but earlier examples have been suggested to have occurred in the late Triassic, Permian, Devonian (Kellwasser event/s), Ordovician and Cambrian.
The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which was characterized by a global rise in temperature and deposition of organic-rich shales in some shelf seas, shows many similarities to oceanic anoxic events.
Typically, oceanic anoxic events last for under half a million years, before a full recovery.
The concept of the oceanic anoxic event (OAE) was first proposed in 1976 by Seymour Schlanger (1927–1990) and geologist Hugh Jenkyns and arose from discoveries made by the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) in the Pacific Ocean. It was the finding of black carbon-rich shales in Cretaceous sediments that had accumulated on submarine volcanic plateaus (Shatsky Rise, Manihiki Plateau), coupled with the fact that they were identical in age with similar deposits cored from the Atlantic Ocean and known from outcrops in Europe—particularly in the geologic record of the otherwise limestone dominated Apennines chain in Italy, that led to the realization that these widespread intervals of similar strata recorded highly unusual "punctuational" conditions in the world ocean during several distinct discrete periods of geological time.
Sedimentological investigations of these organic-rich sediments, which have continued to this day, typically reveal the presence of fine laminations undisturbed by bottom-dwelling fauna, indicating anoxic conditions on the sea floor, believed to be coincident with a low lying poisonous layer of hydrogen sulfide. Furthermore, detailed organic geochemical studies have recently revealed the presence of molecules (so-called biomarkers) that derive from both purple sulfur bacteria and green sulfur bacteria: organisms that required both light and free hydrogen sulfide (H2S), illustrating that anoxic conditions extended high into the upper water column.
Such sulfidic (or euxinic) conditions, which exist today in many water bodies from ponds to various land surrounded mediterranean seas such as the Black Sea of today, were particularly prevalent in the Cretaceous Atlantic but also characterized other parts of the world ocean. In an ice free sea of these believed super-greenhouse worlds, oceanic waters were as much as 200 meters higher, in some eras. During the time spans in question, the continental plates are believed to have been well separated, and the mountains we know today were (mostly) future tectonic events—meaning the overall landscapes were generally much lower— and even the half super-greenhouse climates would have been eras of highly expedited water erosion carrying massive amounts of nutrients into the world oceans fueling an overall explosive population of microorganisms and their predator species in the oxygenated upper layers.
Detailed stratigraphic studies of Cretaceous black shales from many parts of the world have indicated that two oceanic anoxic events were particularly significant in terms of their impact on the chemistry of the oceans, one in the early Aptian (~120 Ma), sometimes called the Selli Event (or OAE 1a) after the Italian geologist, Raimondo Selli (1916–1983), and another at the Cenomanian–Turonian boundary (~93 Ma), sometimes called the Bonarelli Event (or OAE 2) after the Italian geologist, Guido Bonarelli (1871–1951).
More minor oceanic anoxic events have been proposed for other intervals in the Cretaceous (in the Valanginian, Hauterivian, Albian and Coniacian–Santonian stages), but their sedimentary record, as represented by organic-rich black shales, appears more parochial, being dominantly represented in the Atlantic and neighboring areas, and some researchers relate them to particular local conditions rather than being forced by global change.
The only oceanic anoxic event documented from the Jurassic took place during the early Toarcian (~183 Ma). Because no DSDP or ODP (Ocean Drilling Program) cores have recovered black shales of this age – there being little or no Toarcian ocean crust remaining in the world ocean – the samples of black shale primarily come from outcrops on land. These outcrops, together with material from some commercial oil wells, are found on all major continents and this event seems similar in kind to the two major Cretaceous examples.
Temperatures throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous are generally thought to have been relatively warm, and consequently dissolved oxygen levels in the ocean were lower than today - making anoxia easier to achieve. However, more specific conditions are required to explain the short-period (half a million years or less) oceanic anoxic events. Two hypotheses, and variations upon them, have proved most durable.
One hypothesis suggests that the anomalous accumulation of organic matter relates to its enhanced preservation under restricted and poorly oxygenated conditions, which themselves were a function of the particular geometry of the ocean basin: such a hypothesis, although readily applicable to the young and relatively narrow Cretaceous Atlantic (which could be likened to a large-scale Black Sea, only poorly connected to the World Ocean), fails to explain the occurrence of coeval black shales on open-ocean Pacific plateaus and shelf seas around the world. There are suggestions, again from the Atlantic, that a shift in oceanic circulation was responsible, where warm, salty waters at low latitudes became hypersaline and sunk to form an intermediate layer, at 500 to 1,000 m (1,640 to 3,281 ft) depth, with a temperature of 20 °C (68 °F) to 25 °C (77 °F).
The second hypothesis suggests that oceanic anoxic events record a major change in the fertility of the oceans that resulted in an increase in organic-walled plankton (including bacteria) at the expense of calcareous plankton such as coccoliths and foraminifera.
Such an accelerated flux of organic matter would have expanded and intensified the oxygen minimum zone, further enhancing the amount of organic carbon entering the sedimentary record. Essentially this mechanism assumes a major increase in the availability of dissolved nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate and possibly iron to the phytoplankton population living in the illuminated layers of the oceans.
For such an increase to occur would have required an accelerated influx of land-derived nutrients coupled with vigorous upwelling, requiring major climate change on a global scale. Geochemical data from oxygen-isotope ratios in carbonate sediments and fossils, and magnesium/calcium ratios in fossils, indicate that all major oceanic anoxic events were associated with thermal maxima, making it likely that global weathering rates, and nutrient flux to the oceans, were increased during these intervals. Indeed, the reduced solubility of oxygen would lead to phosphate release, further nourishing the ocean and fuelling high productivity, hence a high oxygen demand - sustaining the event through a positive feedback.
Here is another way of looking at oceanic anoxic events. Assume that the earth releases a huge volume of carbon dioxide during an interval of excessive volcanism; global temperatures rise due to the greenhouse effect; global weathering rates and fluvial nutrient flux increase; organic productivity in the oceans increases; organic-carbon burial in the oceans increases (OAE begins); carbon dioxide is drawn down (inverse greenhouse effect); global temperatures fall, and the ocean–atmosphere system returns to equilibrium (OAE ends).
In this way, an oceanic anoxic event can be viewed as the Earth’s response to the injection of excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hydrosphere. One test of this notion is to look at the age of large igneous provinces (LIPs), the extrusion of which would presumably have been accompanied by rapid effusion of vast quantities of volcanogenic gases such as carbon dioxide. Intriguingly, the age of three LIPs (Karoo-Ferrar flood basalt, Caribbean large igneous province, Ontong Java Plateau) correlates uncannily well with that of the major Jurassic (early Toarcian) and Cretaceous (early Aptian and Cenomanian–Turonian) oceanic anoxic events, indicating that a causal link is feasible.
The boundary between the Ordovician and Silurian periods is marked by repetitive periods of anoxia, interspersed with normal, oxic conditions. In addition, anoxic periods are found during the Silurian. These anoxic periods occurred at a time of low global temperatures (although CO2 levels were high), in the midst of a glaciation.
Jeppsson (1990) proposes a mechanism whereby the temperature of polar waters determines the site of formation of downwelling water. If the high latitude waters are below 5 °C (41 °F), they will be dense enough to sink; as they are cool, oxygen is highly soluble in their waters, and the deep ocean will be oxygenated. If high latitude waters are warmer than 5 °C (41 °F), their density is too low for them to sink below the cooler deep waters. Therefore thermohaline circulation can only be driven by salt-increased density, which tends to form in warm waters where evaporation is high. This warm water can dissolve less oxygen, and is produced in smaller quantities, producing a sluggish circulation with little deep water oxygen. The effect of this warm water will propagate through the ocean, and the warmer water has the additional effect of reducing the amount of CO2 which can be stored in the oceans - causing the release of large quantities to the atmosphere in a short time - tens or thousands of years. The warm waters would also initiate the release of clathrates, further increasing both atmospheric temperature and basin anoxia. Similar positive feedbacks operate during cold-pole episodes, amplifying their cooling effects.
The periods with cold poles are termed "P-episodes" (short for primo), and are characterised by bioturbated deep oceans, a humid equator and higher weathering rates, and terminated by extinction events - for example, the Ireviken and Lau events. The inverse is true for the warmer, oxic "S-episodes" (secundo), where deep ocean sediments are typically graptolitic black shales. A typical cycle of secundo-primo episodes and ensuing event typically lasts around 3 Ma.
The duration of events is so long compared to their onset because the positive feedbacks must be overwhelmed. Carbon content in the ocean-atmosphere system is affected by changes in weathering rates, which in turn is dominantly controlled by rainfall. Because this is inversely related to temperature in Silurian times, carbon is gradually drawn down during warm (high CO2) S-episodes, while the reverse is true during P-episodes. On top of this gradual trend is overprinted the signal of Milankovic cycles, which ultimately trigger the switch between P- and S- episodes.
These events become longer during the Devonian; the enlarging land plant biota probably acted as a large buffer to carbon dioxide concentrations.
The end-Ordovician Hirnantian event may alternatively be a result of algal blooms, caused by sudden supply of nutrients through wind-driven upwelling or an influx of nutrient-rich meltwater from melting glaciers, which by virtue of its fresh nature would also slow down oceanic circulation.
A model put forward by Lee Kump, Alexander Pavlov and Michael Arthur in 2005 suggests that oceanic anoxic events may have been characterized by upwelling of water rich in highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas which was then injected into the atmosphere. This phenomenon would likely have poisoned plants and animals and caused mass extinctions. Furthermore, it has been proposed that the hydrogen sulfide rose to the upper atmosphere and attacked the ozone layer, which normally blocks the deadly ultraviolet radiation of the Sun. The increased UV radiation caused by this ozone depletion would have amplified the destruction of plant and animal life. Fossil spores from strata recording the Permian extinction show deformities consistent with UV radiation. This evidence, combined with fossil biomarkers of green sulfur bacteria, indicates that this process could have played a role in that mass extinction event, and possibly other extinction events. The trigger for these mass extinctions appears to be a warming of the ocean caused by a rise of carbon dioxide levels to about 1000 parts per million.
Oceanic anoxic events have had many important consequences. It is believed that they have been responsible for mass extinctions of marine organisms both in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic. The early Toarcian and Cenomanian-Turonian anoxic events correlate with the Toarcian and Cenomanian-Turonian extinction events of mostly marine life forms. Apart from possible atmospheric effects, many deeper-dwelling marine organisms could not adapt to an ocean where oxygen penetrated only the surface layers.
Another, economically significant consequence of oceanic anoxic events is the fact that the prevailing conditions in so many Mesozoic oceans has helped produce most of the world's petroleum and natural gas reserves. During an oceanic anoxic event, the accumulation and preservation of organic matter was much greater than normal, allowing the generation of potential petroleum source rocks in many environments across the globe. Consequently some 70 percent of oil source rocks are Mesozoic in age, and another 15 percent date from the warm Paleogene: only rarely in colder periods were conditions favorable for the production of source rocks on anything other than a local scale.
Anoxic events have happened. Although anoxic events have not happened for millions of years, the geological record shows that they happened many times in the past.
Anoxic events may have caused mass extinctions. These mass extinctions were so characteristic that they have been used by geologists as markers in biostratigraphic dating. It is believed oceanic anoxic events are strongly linked to climate warming and greenhouse gases.
There are several places on earth today that show the features of anoxic events on a localized level. 'Dead zones' exist off the East Coast of the United States in the Chesapeake Bay, in the Scandinavian strait Kattegat, the Black Sea, in the northern Adriatic and off the coast of Louisiana. Typically, oceanic anoxic events last for under half a million years, before a full recovery.