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Simulating the Climate Response to Atmospheric Oxygen Variability in the Phanerozoic: A Focus on the Holocene

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
JournalClimate of the Past
DateAccepted/In press - 7 Jul 2019


The amount of dioxygen (O2) in the atmosphere may have varied from as little as 10% to as high as 35% during the Phanerozoic eon (541 Ma – Present). These changes in the amount of O2 are large enough to have lead to change in atmospheric mass, which may alter the radiative budget of the atmosphere, leading to this mechanism being invoked to explain discrepancies between climate model simulations and proxy reconstructions of past climates. Here we present the first fully 3D numerical model simulations to investigate the climate impacts of changes in O2 during different climate states using the HadGEM3-AO and HadCM3-BL models. We show that simulations with an increase in O2 content result in increased global mean surface air temperature under conditions of a pre-industrial Holocene climate state, in agreement with idealised 1D and 2D modeling studies. We demonstrate the mechanism behind the warming is complex and involves trade-off between a number of factors. Increasing atmospheric O2 leads to a reduction in incident shortwave radiation at Earth’s surface due to Rayleigh scattering, a cooling effect. However, there is a competing warming effect due to an increase in the pressure broadening of greenhouse gas absorption lines and dynamical feedbacks, which alter the meridional heat transport of the ocean, warming polar regions and cooling tropical regions. Case studies from past climates are investigated using HadCM3-BL which show that in the warmest climate states, increasing oxygen may lead to a temperature decrease, as the equilibrium climate sensitivity is lower. For the Maastrichtian (72.1-–66.0 Ma), increasing oxygen content leads to a better agreement with proxy reconstructions of surface temperature at that time irrespective of the carbon dioxide content. For the Asselian (298.9–295.0 Ma), increasing oxygen content leads to a warmer global mean surface temperature and reduced carbon storage on land, suggesting that high oxygen content may have been a contributing factor in pre-venting a Snowball Earth during this period of the early Permian. These climate model simulations reconcile the surface temperature response to oxygen content changes across
the hierarchy of model complexity and highlight the broad range of Earth system feedbacks that need to be accounted for when 40 considering the climate response to changes in atmospheric oxygen content.



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