Global Oxygen Depletion

While browsing over at the two degrees institute, I came across this figure for atmospheric oxygen concentrations measured at a station at the South Pole.

Graph 1

The graph shows the change in:

  • the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen molecules in samples of air taken at a particular date


  • the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen molecules in samples of air taken in the 1980’s.

The sentence above is complicated, but it can be interpreted without too many caveats as simply the change in oxygen concentration in air measured at the South Pole.

We see an annual variation – the Earth ‘breathing’- but more worryingly we see that:

  • The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is declining.

It’s a small effect, and will only reach a 0.1% decline – 1000 parts per million – in 2035 or so. So it won’t affect our ability to breathe. Phewww. But it is nonetheless interesting.

Averaging the data from the South pole over the years since 2010, the oxygen concentration appears to be declining at roughly 25 parts per million per year.


The reason for the decline in oxygen concentration is that we are burning carbon to make carbon dioxide…

C + O2 = CO2

…and as we burn carbon, we consume oxygen.

I wondered if I could use the measured rate of decline in oxygen concentration to estimate the rate of emission of carbon dioxide.

How much carbon is that?

First I needed to know how much oxygen there was in the atmosphere. I considered a number of ways to calculate that, but it being Sunday, I just looked it up in Wikipedia. There I learned that the atmosphere has a mass of about 5.15×1018 kg.

I also learned the molar fractional concentration of the key gases:

  • nitrogen (molecular weight 28): 78.08%
  • oxygen (molecular weight 32): 20.95%
  • argon (molecular weight 40):0.93%

From this I estimated that the mass of 1 mole of the atmosphere was 0.02896 kg/mol. And so the mass of the atmosphere corresponded to…

5.15×1018 /0.02896 = 1.78×1020

…moles of atmosphere. This would correspond to roughly…

1.78×1020 × 0.02095 =3.73×1019

…moles of oxygen molecules. This is the number that appears to be declining by 25 parts per million per year i.e.

3.73×1019× 0.000 025= 9.32×1014

…moles of oxygen molecules are being consumed per year. From the chemical equation, this must correspond to exactly the same number of moles of carbon: 9.32×1014. Since 1 mole of carbon weighs 12 g, this corresponds to…

  • 1.12×1016 g of C,
  • 1.12×1013 kg of C
  • 1.12×1010 tonnes of C
  • 11.2 gigatonnes (Gt) of C

Looking up the sources of sources, I obtained the following estimate for global carbon emissions which indicates that currently emissions are running at about 10 Gt of carbon per year

Carbon Emissions


So Wikipedia tells me that humanity emits roughly 10 Gt of carbon per year, but based on measurements at the South pole, we infer that 11.2 Gt of carbon per year is being emitted and consuming the concomitant amount of oxygen. Mmmmm.

First of all, we notice that these figures actually agree within roughly 10%. Which is pleasing.

  • But what is the origin the disagreement?
  • Could it be that the data from the South Pole is not representative?

I downloaded data from the Scripps Institute for a number of sites and the graph below shows recent data from Barrow in Alaska alongside the South Pole data. These locations are roughly half a world – about 20,000 km – apart.

Graph 2

Fascinatingly, the ‘breathing’ parts of the data are out of phase! Presumably this arises from the phasing of summer and winter in the northern and southern hemispheres.

But significantly the slopes of the trend lines differ by only 1%.  So global variability doesn’t seem to able to explain the 10% difference between the rate of carbon burning predicted from the decline of atmospheric oxygen (11.2 Gt C per year) , and the number I got off Wikipedia (10 Gt C per year).

Wikipedia’s number was obtained from the Carbon Dioxide Information and Analysis Centre (CDIAC) which bases their estimate on statistics from countries around the world based on stated oil, gas and coal consumption.

My guess is that there is considerable uncertainty – on the order of a few percent –  on both the CDIAC estimate, and also on the Scripps Institute estimates. So agreement at the level of about 10% is actually – in the context of a blog article – acceptable.


My conclusion is that – as they say so clearly over at the two degrees project – we are in deep trouble. Oxygen depletion is actually just an interesting diversion.

The most troubling graph they present shows

  • the change in CO2 concentration over the last 800,000  years, shown against the left-hand axis,


  • the estimated change in Earth’s temperature over the last 800,000  years, shown  along the right-hand axis.

The correlation between the two quantities is staggering, and the conclusion is terrifying. chart

We’re cooked…


One Response to “Global Oxygen Depletion”

  1. H Stiles (@HStiles1) Says:

    As ever your posts are interesting & enlightening!

    Also terrifying…

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