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Do We Owe Everything to Volcanoes?

September 5, 2007
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A rise in oxygen levels around 2.5 billion years ago may have occurred after a massive tectonic shift forced many submerged volcanoes above water, a new study says.

These above-ground volcanoes, such as the Piton de La Fournaise volcano on the island of La Réunion (above, erupting in April 2007) stopped spewing oxygen-destroying chemicals into the air—allowing vital ingredients for complex life to build up.

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At that time, Earth’s early atmosphere wasn’t fit to breathe. Filled with nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and sulfurous fumes, the air would have left humans gasping.

These noxious fumes held a clamp on evolution: Complex life didn’t really get going until the planet’s skies began to fill with oxygen, allowing more efficient methods of extracting energy from nutrients.

Submerged volcanoes spew a different set of gases than those that erupt into the air.

Magma from aerial volcanoes, on the other hand, stays hot and releases gases like carbon dioxide
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