For at least a billion years of the distant past, planet Earth should have been frozen over but wasn’t, and one popular notion was that methane, with 23-34 times (yes, it is unclear) the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide, could have reigned supreme for most of the first 3.5 billion years of Earth history, when oxygen was absent initially. 

Environmentalists today are in a panic about greenhouse gases, but between 1.8 billion and 800 million years ago, microscopic ocean dwellers really needed them. The sun was 10 to 15 percent dimmer than it is today—too weak to warm the planet on its own. Earth required a potent mix of heat-trapping gases to keep the oceans liquid and livable.

A fatal flaw of past climate models and their predictions for atmospheric composition is that they ignore what happens in the oceans, where most methane originates as specialized bacteria decompose organic matter. Nowadays oxygen is one-fifth of the air we breathe, and it destroys methane in a matter of years. In the past, it required something more: sulfate. Sulfate wasn’t a factor until oxygen appeared in the atmosphere and triggered oxidative weathering of rocks on land. The breakdown of minerals such as pyrite produces sulfate, which then flows down rivers to the oceans. Less oxygen means less sulfate, but even 1 percent of the modern abundance is sufficient to kill methane.

Seawater sulfate is a problem for methane in two ways: Sulfate destroys methane directly, which limits how much of the gas can escape the oceans and accumulate in the atmosphere. Sulfate also limits the production of methane. Life can extract more energy by reducing sulfate than it can by making methane, so sulfate consumption dominates over methane production in nearly all marine environments.

The numerical model used in this study calculated sulfate reduction, methane production, and a broad array of other biogeochemical cycles in the ocean for the billion years between 1.8 billion and 800 million years ago. This model, which divides the ocean into nearly 15,000 three-dimensional regions and calculates the cycles for each region, is by far the highest resolution model ever applied to the ancient Earth. By comparison, other biogeochemical models divide the entire ocean into a two-dimensional grid of no more than five regions.

Oxygen dealt methane an additional blow, based on evidence published recently in the journals Science and Geology. These papers describe geochemical signatures in the rock record that track extremely low oxygen levels in the atmosphere, perhaps much less than 1 percent of modern values, up until about 800 million years ago, when they spiked dramatically.

Less oxygen seems like a good thing for methane, since they are incompatible gases, but with oxygen at such extremely low levels, another problem arises. When the researchers ran their model with the lower oxygen estimates, the ozone shield never formed, leaving the modest puffs of methane that escaped the oceans at the mercy of destructive photochemistry.

With methane perhaps demoted, scientists face a new challenge to determine the greenhouse cocktail that explains our planet’s climate and life story, including a billion years devoid of glaciers. Knowing the right combination other warming agents, such as water vapor, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide, will also help us assess habitability of the hundreds of billions of other Earth-like planets estimated to reside in our galaxy.