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How does Earth maintain a constant level of oxygen? © Getty Images

How does Earth maintain a constant level of oxygen?

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Global warming and climate change are causing a serious problem with keeping oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere at a constant level.

Asked by: Richard Harrison, Firbeck

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It doesn’t! The oxygen level of the planet has varied quite dramatically in the last 500 million years. It was 35 per cent during the Carboniferous period, around 300 million years ago; as the climate cooled and land plants died off, oxygen fell to as low as 12 per cent by the beginning of the Triassic. Back then, the air at sea level would have felt thinner than at the top of the Alps today.

Burning fossil fuels has reduced oxygen levels very slightly – about 0.057 per cent over the last 30 years. Deforestation only has a small effect because when rainforest is cut down, other plants are usually grown in its place. But it’s marine plankton, rather than trees, that produces about 70 per cent of atmospheric oxygen. Global warming will have a significant impact on plankton, which is a much more serious threat to oxygen levels.

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Authors

luis villazon
Luis VillazonQ&A expert

Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.

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