Enhanced organic carbon burial in large Proterozoic lakes: Implications for atmospheric oxygenation

Samuel C. Spinks*, John Parnell, Stephen A. Bowden, Ross A. D. Taylor, Màiri E. Maclean

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


The burial of organic carbon in sedimentary systems has been a fundamental part of the carbon cycle throughout the geological record, and was instrumental in major oxygenations of the atmosphere in the early Palaeoproterozoic and Neoproterozoic. While much focus has been placed on the burial of carbon in Precambrian marine carbonate and organic carbon-rich rocks deposited around the time of these major oxygenations, such deposits yield little information on the evolution of the atmosphere in the significant time between. There is, however, growing evidence from terrestrially deposited sediments to suggest the surface environment may have been at least intermittently well-oxygenated from the late Mesoproterozoic. Hence Proterozoic sediments deposited in terrestrial near-surface environments are useful targets for the study of atmospheric evolution during a time which is hitherto poorly understood.Thus far, little attention has been paid to the contribution of large lakes and intercontinental basins to the global burial of organic carbon, and thus the progressive oxygenation of the atmosphere, especially given that the highest rates of organic carbon burial in modern aquatic environments occur in lacustrine settings, in stark contrast to the low rates observed in the contemporary marine realm. Here, we report high burial rates of organic carbon in large lacustrine systems of late Mesoproterozoic to early Neoproterozoic age, which are comparable with modern lacustrine systems, and significantly higher than modern and ancient marine deposits. These data emphasise the significance of lakes as a global repository for organic carbon, and imply Proterozoic lakes were at least as efficient, and perhaps as important, as modern lakes in the global burial of organic carbon. Such findings suggest large Proterozoic lakes and epicontinental basins played a crucial role in the progressive oxygenation of the atmosphere before the major Neoproterozoic oxygenation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-215
Number of pages14
JournalPrecambrian Research
Issue numberPart 1
Early online date5 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014

Bibliographical note

This study was funded by the College of Physical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen. The authors would like to thank Colin Taylor, John Still, and Walter Ritchie of the University of Aberdeen. Field work was assisted by Jack Hunter and Bena Spinks. Thanks also go to David McKirdy, Martin Brasier and another anonymous reviewer, whose constructive critiques and thoughtful suggestions hugely improved the original manuscript. Special thanks go to Richard Whiteman and Robert Seasor of Ontonagon, Michigan, whose selfless efforts and advice secured access to the decommissioned White Pine Mine.


  • Atmospheric oxygenation
  • Mesoproterozoic
  • Neoproterozoic
  • Nonesuch Shale
  • Organic carbon burial
  • Torridonian Supergroup


Dive into the research topics of 'Enhanced organic carbon burial in large Proterozoic lakes: Implications for atmospheric oxygenation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this