The oxygen concentration of the atmosphere likely increased substantially in the late Neoproterozoic. Although several studies have presented compelling geochemical evidence for this stepwise oxygenation, few have addressed the mechanisms behind it. Recently it was hypothesized that the advent of eukaryotic life on land, and the associated increase in soil respiration, led to a transient reduction in the supply of oxygen for rock weathering, temporarily reducing oxidative weathering rates, allowing atmospheric oxygen levels to rise to restore the oxygen supply. To evaluate this hypothesis quantitatively, we developed a simple one-dimensional diffusion-reaction soil model that reduces the many oxygen weathering sinks to one, pyrite, given that it is the dominant sink at low oxygen concentrations. In simulations with no biological respiration, pyrite weathering rates become oxygen independent at an atmospheric oxygen concentration between 10−6× the present-day atmospheric level (PAL) and 1 PAL. On the other hand, when biological respiration is considered, pyrite weathering remains oxygen dependent even at modern oxygen levels. Constrained by modern weathering profiles and soil respiration rates, we find that the atmospheric oxygen level may have increased by up to two orders of magnitude as biotic soil respiration increased. This may be sufficient to explain the second rise in atmospheric oxygen inferred for the Neoproterozoic.

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