Strange messenger: A new history of hydrogen on Earth, as told by Xenon

Kevin J. Zahnle, Marko Gacesa, David C. Catling

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107 Scopus citations


Atmospheric xenon is strongly mass fractionated, the result of a process that apparently continued through the Archean and perhaps beyond. Previous models that explain Xe fractionation by hydrodynamic hydrogen escape cannot gracefully explain how Xe escaped when Ar and Kr did not, nor allow Xe to escape in the Archean. Here we show that Xe is the only noble gas that can escape as an ion in a photo-ionized hydrogen wind, possible in the absence of a geomagnetic field or along polar magnetic field lines that open into interplanetary space. To quantify the hypothesis we construct new 1-D models of hydrodynamic diffusion-limited hydrogen escape from highly-irradiated CO2-H2-H atmospheres. The models reveal three minimum requirements for Xe escape: solar EUV irradiation needs to exceed 10× that of the modern Sun; the total hydrogen mixing ratio in the atmosphere needs to exceed 1% (equiv. to 0.5% CH4); and transport amongst the ions in the lower ionosphere needs to lift the Xe ions to the base of the outflowing hydrogen corona. The long duration of Xe escape implies that, if a constant process, Earth lost the hydrogen from at least one ocean of water, roughly evenly split between the Hadean and the Archean. However, to account for both Xe's fractionation and also its depletion with respect to Kr and primordial 244Pu, Xe escape must have been limited to small apertures or short episodes, which suggests that Xe escape was restricted to polar windows by a geomagnetic field, or dominated by outbursts of high solar activity, or limited to transient episodes of abundant hydrogen, or a combination of these. Xenon escape stopped when the hydrogen (or methane) mixing ratio became too small, or EUV radiation from the aging Sun became too weak, or charge exchange between Xe+ and O2 rendered Xe neutral. In our model, Xe fractionation attests to an extended history of hydrogen escape and Earth oxidation preceding and ending with the Great Oxidation Event (GOE).

Original languageBritish English
Pages (from-to)56-85
Number of pages30
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2019


  • Earth atmospheric evolution
  • Great oxidation event
  • Noble gases


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