Bolide impacts and the oxidation state of carbon in the Earth's early atmosphere

James F. Kasting

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A one-dimensional photochemical model was used to examine the effect of bolide impacts on the oxidation state of Earth's primitive atmosphere. The impact rate should have been high prior to 3.8 Ga before present, based on evidence derived from the Moon. Impacts of comets or carbonaceous asteroids should have enhanced the atmospheric CO/CO2 ratio by bringing in CO ice and/or organic carbon that can be oxidized to CO in the impact plume. Ordinary chondritic impactors would contain elemental iron that could have reacted with ambient CO2 to give CO. Nitric oxide (NO) should also have been produced by reaction between ambient CO2 and N2 in the hot impact plumes. High NO concentrations increase the atmospheric CO/CO2 ratio by increasing the rainout rate of oxidized gases. According to the model, atmospheric CO/CO2 ratios of unity or greater are possible during the first several hundred million years of Earth's history, provided that dissolved CO was not rapidly oxidized to bicarbonate in the ocean. Specifically, high atmospheric CO/CO2 ratios are possible if either: (1) the climate was cool (like today's climate), so that hydration of dissolved CO to formate was slow, or (2) the formate formed from CO was efficiently converted into volatile, reduced carbon compounds, such as methane. A high atmospheric CO/CO2 ratio may have helped to facilitate prebiotic synthesis by enhancing the production rates of hydrogen cyanide and formaldehyde. Formaldehyde may have been produced even more efficiently by photochemical reduction of bicarbonate and formate in Fe++-rich surface waters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)199-231
Number of pages33
JournalOrigins of life and evolution of the biosphere
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - May 1990

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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