Oxygen cycle

The oxygen cycle.

The Oxygen cycle is the biogeochemical cycle that describes the movement of oxygen within its three main reservoirs: the atmosphere (air), the total content of biological matter within the biosphere (the global sum of all ecosystems), and the lithosphere (Earth's crust). Failures in the oxygen cycle within the hydrosphere (the combined mass of water found on, under, and over the surface of a planet) can result in the development of hypoxic zones. The main driving factor of the oxygen cycle is photosynthesis, which is responsible for the modern Earth's atmosphere and life.



By far the largest reservoir of Earth's oxygen is within the silicate and oxide minerals of the crust and mantle (99.5%). Only a small portion has been released as free oxygen to the biosphere (0.01%) and atmosphere (0.36%). The main source of atmospheric oxygen is photosynthesis, which produces sugars and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water:-

6CO2 + 6H2O + energy → C6H12O6 + 6O2

Photosynthesizing organisms include the plant life of the land areas as well as the phytoplankton of the oceans. The tiny marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus was discovered in 1986 and accounts for more than half of the photosynthesis of the open ocean.[1]

An additional source of atmospheric oxygen comes from photolysis, whereby high energy ultraviolet radiation breaks down atmospheric water and nitrous oxide into component atoms. The free H and N atoms escape into space leaving O2 in the atmosphere:

2H2O + energy → 4H + O2
2N2O + energy → 4N + O2

The main way oxygen is lost from the atmosphere is via respiration and decay, mechanisms in which animal life and bacteria consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

Because lithospheric consumes oxygen. An example of surface weathering chemistry is formation of iron-oxides (rust):

4FeO + O2 → 2Fe2O3
Main article: Mineral redox buffer

Oxygen is also cycled between the biosphere and lithosphere. Marine organisms in the biosphere create calcium carbonate shell material (CaCO3) that is rich in oxygen. When the organism dies its shell is deposited on the shallow sea floor and buried over time to create the limestone rock of the lithosphere. Weathering processes initiated by organisms can also free oxygen from the lithosphere. Plants and animals extract nutrient minerals from rocks and release oxygen in the process.

Capacities and fluxes

The following tables offer estimates of oxygen cycle reservoir capacities and fluxes. These numbers are based primarily on estimates from (Walker, J.C.G.)[2]:

Table 1: Major reservoirs involved in the oxygen cycle

Reservoir Capacity
(kg O2)
Flux In/Out
(kg O2 per year)
Residence Time
Atmosphere 1.4 * 1018 30,000 * 1010 4,500
Biosphere 1.6 * 1016 30,000 * 1010 50
Lithosphere 2.9 * 1020 60 * 1010 500,000,000

Table 2: Annual gain and loss of atmospheric oxygen (Units of 1010 kg O2 per year)

Photosynthesis (land)
Photosynthesis (ocean)
Photolysis of N2O
Photolysis of H2O
Total Gains ~ 30,000
Losses - Respiration and Decay
Aerobic Respiration
Microbial Oxidation
Combustion of Fossil Fuel (anthropogenic)
Photochemical Oxidation
Fixation of N2 by Lightning
Fixation of N2 by Industry (anthropogenic)
Oxidation of Volcanic Gases
Losses - Weathering
Chemical Weathering
Surface Reaction of O3
Total Losses ~ 30,000


The presence of atmospheric oxygen has led to the formation of ozone (O3) and the ozone layer within the stratosphere. The ozone layer is extremely important to modern life as it absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation:

O2 + uv energy → 2O
O + O2 → O3


  1. ^ Steve Nadis, The Cells That Rule the Seas, Scientific American, Nov. 2003 [1]
  2. ^ Walker, J. C. G. (1980) The oxygen cycle in the natural environment and the biogeochemical cycles, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany (DEU)

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