Caldeira Lab Research:Paleoclimate and geochemical cycles

Cyanobacterial Emergence at 2.8 Gya and Greenhouse Feedbacks

D. Schwartzman, K. Caldeira & A. Pavlov

Approximately 2.8 billion years ago, cyanobacteria and a methane-influenced greenhouse emerged nearly simultaneously. Here we hypothesize that the evolution of cyanobacteria could have caused a methane greenhouse.

Schwartzman, D; Caldeira, K; Pavlov, A, 2008. Cyanobacterial emergence at 2.8 gya and greenhouse feedbacks, Astrobiology 8 (1):187-203, DOI: 10.1089/ast.2006.0074

Fig. 3: Atmospheric pCO2level (a, c, e) and surface temperature (b, d, f) as a function of time for 5 assumed tran- sition times (10, 20, 50, 100, 200 myr) to a methane-dominated greenhouse at 2.8 Gya, with initial/final tempera- tures of 50, 60 and 70°C, respectively.


Apparent cyanobacterial emergence at about 2.8 Gya coincides with the negative excursion in the organic carbon isotope record, which is the first strong evidence for the presence of atmospheric methane. The existence of weathering feedbacks in the carbonate-silicate cycle suggests that atmospheric and oceanic CO2 concentrations would have been high prior to the presence of a methane greenhouse (and thus the ocean would have had high bicarbonate concentrations). With the onset of a methane greenhouse, carbon dioxide concentrations would decrease. Bicarbonate has been proposed as the preferred reductant that preceded water for oxygenic photosynthesis in a bacterial photosynthetic precursor to cyanobacteria; with the drop of carbon dioxide level, Archean cyanobacteria emerged using water as a reductant instead of bicarbonate (Dismukes et al., 2001). Our thermodynamic calculations, with regard to this scenario, give at least a tenfold drop in aqueous CO2 levels with the onset of a methane-dominated greenhouse, assuming surface temperatures of about 60°C and a drop in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide from about 1 to 0.1 bars. The buildup of atmospheric methane could have been triggered by the boost in oceanic organic productivity that arose from the emergence of pre-cyanobacterial oxygenic phototrophy at about 2.8–3.0 Gya; high temperatures may have precluded an earlier emergence. A greenhouse transition timescale on the order of 50–100 million years is consistent with results from modeling the carbonate-silicate cycle. This is an alternative hypothesis to proposals of a tectonic driver for this apparent greenhouse transition.