A Princeton University study found that Oxygen levels are much lower than they were millions of years ago. The levels have been dropping, yes, but it’s nothing for extreme alarm. This isn’t a recent development—it has been occurring over the course of one million years, a literal glacial pace. The study concludes that this phenomenon isn’t enough to catalyze any major issues for Earth. However, the findings do have extraordinary implications.

Where was the study conducted?

Researchers traveled all the way to Antarctica and Greenland to study samples taken from ice core drilling stations. From there, they were able to determine the planet’s atmospheric oxygen levels throughout various parts of history.

Yes, sounds complicated, but just remember this: despite the name, Greenland and Antarctica remain nigh inhospitable frozen wastelands, Antarctica especially. These are the two places where samples are least likely to be disturbed by almost anything, especially that far down into ground. It makes sense to use these two places to find samples.

Why does it matter?

“Atmospheric oxygen levels are fundamentally linked to the evolution of life on Earth, as well as changes in geochemical cycles related to climate variations,” Charles Q. Choi of Live Science states.  Just think—one of the main reasons for the existence of life on Earth, more specifically intelligent human life, is because of the oxygen-rich air.

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Sure, there are theories that there is—or once existed—life on other planets. After all, there are millions upon billions of planets in space. Probability is at least one of them has some kind of living organism. But that’s life more along the lines of bacteria or mold existing on another planet, not sentient, conscious life.

Part of what makes Earth unique is its abundance of water, which is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. For years scientists have been attempting to recreate how atmospheric oxygen levels fluctuated, and the link between these changes. This is a huge step for the process. Before, there was debate on whether or not historic atmospheric oxygen levels had at all differed from today’s, and if so to what degree. But not any longer.

In an interview with Live Science, the lead researcher Daniel Stolper, a geochemist at Princeton University, stated “There was no consensus on whether the oxygen cycle before humankind began burning fossil fuels was in or out of balance and, if so, whether it was increasing or decreasing.” That is no longer the case.

How much should we be worrying?

It is now confirmed that oxygen levels have fallen by about 0.7 percent over the course of 800,000 years. Yes, that is a seemingly low number, but just think of how a fever is only a few degrees above a person’s average temperature. Less than a 10 degree difference can kill. So while a degree or two above average is nothing to be worried about, it is something to be monitored, just in case it gets worse.

The two possible causes

So far, there are two theories to explain this phenomenon: rising erosion rates and cooling oceans. "lobal erosion rates may have increased over the past few to tens of millions of years due to, among other things, the growth of glaciers — glaciers grind rock, thereby increasing erosion rates," Stopler explained.

A side effect of erosion would be increased exposure of carbon. Carbon can easily react with oxygen, and therefore eliminate it from the atmosphere.