Earth is Losing Oxygen


“We’ve been losing hydrogen since the day the planet formed, because it is so light,” said Dr. James A. Gore, UT’s Dean of Natural and Health Sciences. “Well, oxygen is pretty light too.”

According to a new study published Aug. 2 and conducted by a team of researchers, including Princeton geochemist, Daniel Stolper, atmospheric oxygen levels on Earth have declined. They analyzed the air trapped in ice caps located in Greenland and Antarctica. The findings of the study indicate that oxygen levels have fallen about 0.7 percent over the past 800,000 years. That may not sound like much, but some are concerned that this is just one sign of a much bigger problem — climate change.

“The question is, is it starting to accelerate; are we losing it [oxygen] faster now than we did by natural processes?” Gore said. “And I would say the answer is yes.”

Gore explained that humans are destroying the ozone layer. The more it is broken down, the more oxygen will get lost into the atmosphere.

The ozone layer is a belt of naturally occurring ozone and it serves as a shield from harmful ultraviolet B radiation produced by the sun, according to National Geographic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that UVB radiation, a band of ultraviolet radiation responsible for causing melanoma and skin cancer, has various effects, including affecting the biogeochemical cycles of plants.

This affects Florida, and Tampa especially, because of high UV indexes, or “the next-day forecast for the amount of skin-damaging radiation expected to reach the earth’s surface at the time when the sun is highest in the sky,” according to the National Weather Service. Tampa has experienced moderate to high levels of radiation lately according to this index.

One reason for the problem is human destruction of sources of oxygen like trees, according to Gore.

“[We’re destroying] tropical rainforests at about 600 acres a day,” Gore said. “That is something like the size of the area of the Congo — and we’re not replacing them.”

Trees play a crucial role in absorbing the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming and cause climate change — the soil dries out due to lack of sun protection from the shades of trees, and trees return water vapor back into the atmosphere; however without trees to do this, what was once a lush area may turn into a desert, according to National Geographic.

Scientists don’t know why the oxygen is leaving, but they do know that the rate at which it is leaving is increasing due to thinning of the ozone layer.

Stolper offers another hypothesis to explain the leakage, which is that there is an increase in erosion rate due to growing glaciers grinding against rock. In doing so, it introduces more pyrite and organic carbon into the atmosphere; these can react with oxygen, causing it to be removed from the air.

“It’s definitely scary seeing the facts,” said Sara Richardson, a freshman accounting major. “I feel like people just think about climate change in a broad sense, not realizing it’s an actual problem and trying to do something about it.”

However, not everyone is alarmed by this finding.

The decrease in oxygen levels are trivial, Stolper said to Live Science: “To put it in perspective, the pressure in the atmosphere declines with elevation. A 0.7 percent decline in the atmospheric pressure of oxygen occurs at about 100 meters (330 feet) above sea level — that is, about the 30 floor of a tall building.”

As of now, we are not in a state of emergency.

“We’re not going to wind up waking up someday and suffocating,” Gore said. However, he warned that it may be our “grandchildren’s grandchildren” who feel the incredible pinch.

Gore spoke of human perspective and what they can do to reduce the harmful effects felt today.

“Producing consumables is the only valuable thing, a lot of people say,” Gore said.

He continued to say that humans should recycle and reuse what they have, as also recommended by the National Geographic.

Student organizations have started recycling programs, one being the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), who recycle old issues of The Minaret each week; some students are interested in sustainable action.

“I feel like we should have more options of recycling here,” said Richardson. “We should have recycling bins on our floors for people to be encouraged to recycle.”

UT’s campus recycling resources are located in many areas including next to McKay Hall, in Morsani parking lot, and on the west side of Austin parking area. There are also recycling collection sites in the laundry rooms of most dormitories.

The students of UT have the greatest power of anyone in the UT community to bring about change,” said Daniel Huber, associate professor of biology who also works for the Faculty Sustainability Committee. “If students are unhappy with the state of the recycling program, they need to find productive channels through which to voice these concerns and advocate for better resources.”

Indira Moosai can be reached at

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