As any gardener knows, the element phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient or fertiliser, along with potassium and nitrogen plus a host of minor elements that are rarely mentioned as sufficient amounts are generally available in soils. The same necessities for life apply to oceans too, in which amounts vary a great deal from place to place and whose relative proportions have changed through geological time. For the oceans the main source of phosphorus is the continental crust, where the element resides mainly in the mineral apatite (Ca5(PO4)3(F,Cl,OH)). This is not an easily dissolved mineral, which is why for agricultural fertiliser it is generally made available in the soluble form of calcium superphosphate (Ca(H2PO4)2) that is produced by reaction between apatite and sulfuric acid. Since the land surface was colonised by plants about 450 Ma ago, biological processes made phosphorus more readily available to solution in river water by their break-down of apatite; supply by rivers to the ocean nowadays is of the order of 109 kg y-1. Ups and downs of P dissolved in ocean water though geological time would be expected to have influenced its overall biological productivity, controlled by photosynthetic phytoplankton and prokaryotes. Variations of carbon isotopes (δ13C) in organic and carbonate sediments are know to have occurred episodically since Archaean times, suggesting wide fluctuations in both bioproductivity and burial of dead organic matter. However, it has been hard to judge any geochemical reasons underpinning such variations. Since it is now clear that the common iron mineral goethite (FeOOH) ‘mops up’ many chemical species including phosphate ions by adsorption on its grain surfaces, measuring the P/Fe ratios in marine ironstones containing these minerals is a potential guide to the changing phosphorus concentration in the oceans (Planavsky, N.J. et al. 2010. The evolution of the marine phosphate reservoir. Nature, v. 467, p. 1088-1090).
The US-French-Canadian researchers charted P/Fe ratios in banded iron formations and ironstones precipitated around ocean-floor hydrothermal vents since the Archaean. What emerged were four episodes: from 2900 to 1700 Ma with generally low ratios; the Neoproterozoic from 750 to 635 Ma with much higher ratios; the Phanerozoic from Cambrian to Jurassic with low ratios and post-Cretaceous high ratios. There are several significant gaps in the record of ocean phosphate levels, notable one a billion years long from 750 to 1700 Ma. One factor that probably affected the variation is the way that dissolved silica (SiO2) drives down the proportion of phosphate adsorbing onto goethite. The rapid evolution and expansion since the Cretaceous of diatoms that secrete silica probably reduced SiO2 concentration in ocean water as their remains rained down to be buried on the ocean floor; that explains the high P/Fe ratios since about 100 Ma. Earlier Phanerozoic oceans are estimated to have had as much as seven times the present concentration of dissolved SiO2, thereby explaining the low values of P/Fe in ironstones deposited in the 100-540 Ma range. From 1700 to 3000 Ma the low P/Fe suggests oceanic phosphorus levels equivalent to those from the Jurassic to Cambrian (but perhaps up to 4 times that, depending on the poorly constrained SiO2 concentrations).
The Neoproterozoic phosphorus ‘spike’, at a time when dissolved SiO2 would have been no different from that in earlier times, suggests a massive influx of phosphate to the oceans at that time. It coincides with the two greatest glacial epochs the Earth has experienced: ‘Snowball’ Earth when glacial ice existed at tropic latitudes. In themselves the massive glaciations offer an explanation for high phosphorus delivery from the continents through glacial erosion and massive run-off during melting. More exciting is that the P/Fe ‘spike’ occurred at a time of massive perturbations in stable carbon isotopes ascribed to huge explosions of phytoplankton and organic carbon burial, which would have been permitted by high dissolved phosphate in the oceans. A large increase in primary biological productivity, i.e. photosynthesis, would have boosted oxygen levels; a necessity for the emergence of metazoan life forms soon after the end of ‘Snowball’ Earth conditions. But that begs the question of how glacially ground-up apatite, abundant as it would have been together with vast amounts of other rock debris, came to be dissolved. In today’s oceans crystalline apatite is barely soluble. It seems that apatite’s solubility decreases as temperature rises, and increases with pH – in alkaline conditions. As well as being cold, Neoproterozoic ocean water around the time of the ‘Snowball’ Earths was saturated with carbonate ions that helped thick, almost pure limestones to form globally after each glaciation. That spells alkaline conditions favouring phosphate solution. The authors speculate that global geochemical conditions during the Cryogenian Period (850-635 Ma) may have fostered the origin of the metazoans. Maybe, but their data have a billion-year gap immediately before that Period, and genomic molecular clocks suggest that the root metazoans emerged as much as half a billion years earlier.
See also: Filippelli, G.M. 2010. Phosphorus and the gust of fresh air. Nature, v. 467, p.1052-1053.