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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

How do trees give earth all its oxygen?

Category: Biology      Published: January 5, 2013

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

All of earth's oxygen does not come from trees. Rather, the atmospheric oxygen that we depend on as humans comes predominantly from the ocean. According to National Geographic, about 70% of the oxygen in the atmosphere comes from marine plants and plant-like organisms. These ocean-living plants release molecular oxygen as a waste product of photosynthesis (as do most plants). In photosynthesis, plants capture sunlight and use its energy to split carbon dioxide and water, making sugar for itself and releasing oxygen as a by-product. The dominance of ocean life as earth's top oxygen producer makes sense when you consider that the majority of the earth is covered with ocean.

Of the different types of marine life providing oxygen, the dominant class is phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic photosynthesizing organisms that live in water. Phytoplankton includes cyanobacteria, green algae, diatoms, and dinoflagellates. Although too small to be visible to the human eye by itself, when many phytoplankton clump together they look like green ocean slime. The oxygen we depend on from breath to breath is provided mostly by a vast army of invisible sea creatures.

global map of chlorophyll levels
This image shows global chlorophyll levels averaged from 1997-2006. Chlorophyll is the key chemical in plants and plant-like organisms that captures sunlight, enabling photosynthesis to release oxygen into the atmosphere. Public Domain Image, source: NASA.

Topics: atmosphere, oxygen, oxygen cycle, photosynthesis, phytoplankton, tree, trees, trees