Nutty story of the day #5, One more thing to worry about: The Oxygen Crisis!

Trend of atmospheric oxygen (O2) from Cape Grim, Tasmania. This looks serious, right? Read on.

FOREWORD: I had to chuckle at this. This is the sort of story I would expect in the supermarket tabloids next to a picture of Bat Boy. For the UK Guardian to say there is a “oxygen crisis”, is not only ignorant of the facts, but simple fear mongering riding on the coattails of the “CO2 crisis”. Read the article below, and then read the reasons why myself and others are saying this story is worry over nothing.

UPDATE: Physicist Lubos Motl also takes this article and the author to task, here

UPDATE#2: According to the Guardian website: “It is the policy of the Guardian to correct significant errors as soon as possible” For those readers that think this Guardian article needs correction, here is the contact info:

Readers may contact the office of the readers’ editor by telephoning +44(0)20 7713 4736 between 11am and 5pm UK time Monday to Friday excluding public holidays. Email, send mail to The Readers’ Editor, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER, or fax +44(0)20 7239 9997. The Guardian’s editorial code incorporates the editors’ code overseen by the Press Complaints Commission.

The oxygen crisis

Could the decline of oxygen in the atmosphere undermine our health and threaten human survival?

Peter Tatchell  Peter Tatchell, Wednesday August 13 2008 20:00 BST

The rise in carbon dioxide emissions is big news. It is prompting action to reverse global warming. But little or no attention is being paid to the long-term fall in oxygen concentrations and its knock-on effects.

Compared to prehistoric times, the level of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere has declined by over a third and in polluted cities the decline may be more than 50%. This change in the makeup of the air we breathe has potentially serious implications for our health. Indeed, it could ultimately threaten the survival of human life on earth, according to Roddy Newman, who is drafting a new book, The Oxygen Crisis.

Read the rest of the story here.

Predictably, once again mankind gets the blame in the article:

Much of this recent, accelerated change is down to human activity, notably the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels.

From a mailing list I subscribe to, there’s been a number of comments made about this story. Here are a few:

The O2 concentration of the atmosphere has been measured off and on for about 100 years now, and the concentration (20.95%) has not varied within the accuracy of the measurements.  Only in recent years have more precise measurement techniques been developed, and the tiny decrease in O2 with increasing CO2 has been actually measured….but I believe the O2 concentration is still 20.95%….maybe it’s down to 20.94% by now…I’m not sure.

There is SO much O2 in the atmosphere, it is believed to not be substantially affected by vegetation, but it is the result of geochemistry in deep-ocean sediments…no one really knows for sure.

Since too much O2 is not good for humans, the human body keeps O2 concentrations down around 5% in our major organs.  Extra O2 can give you a burst of energy, but it will harm you if the exposure is too long.

It has been estimated that global wildfire risk would increase greatly if O2 concentrations were much more than they are now.

Here’s one I remember reading about a long time ago:

Around 1920 when steel production began to expand to what looked like no limit, it was believed (and demonstrated) that the use of coal would consume all the oxygen in the atmosphere in 50 years.

So far, we are still breathing O2, even though we have increased the volume of coal and oil used steadily since then. More worry based on bad science.

For those wanting to brush up on the history of oxygen concentrations though the millenia, I suggest this essay in Science News:

Changes in the air: variations in atmospheric oxygen have affected evolution in big ways

Science News, Dec 17, 2005, by Sid Perkins

But the most interesting perspective on why there is no oxygen crisis comes from this article from Wallace Broecker of Columbia University titled Et tu, O2?

AN OFT-HEARD WARNING with regard to our planet’s future is that by cutting back tropical forests we put our supply of oxygen gas at risk. Many good reasons exist for placing deforestation near the top of our list of environmental sins, but fortunately the fate of the Earth’s O2 supply does not hang in the balance. Simply put, our atmosphere is endowed with such an enormous reserve of this gas that even if we were to burn all our fossil fuel reserves, all our trees, and all the organic matter stored in soils, we would use up only a few percent of the available O2. No matter how foolishly we treat our environmental heritage, we simply don’t have the capacity to put more than a small dent in our O2 supply. Furthermore, the Earth’s forests do not play a dominant role in maintaining O2 reserves, because they consume just as much of this gas as they produce. In the tropics, ants, termites, bacteria, and fungi eat nearly the entire photosynthetic O2 product. Only a tiny fraction of the organic matter they produce accumulates in swamps and soils or is carried down the rivers for burial on the sea floor.

While no danger exists that our O2 reserve will be depleted, nevertheless the O2 content of our atmosphere is slowly declining–so slowly that a sufficiently accurate technique to measure this change wasn’t developed until the late 1980s. Ralph Keeling, its developer, showed that between 1989 and 1994 the O2 content of the atmosphere decreased at an average annual rate of 2 parts per million. Considering that the atmosphere contains 210,000 parts per million, one can see why this measurement proved so difficult.

This drop was not unexpected, for the combustion of fossil fuels destroys O2. For each 100 atoms of fossil-fuel carbon burned, about 140 molecules of O2 are consumed. The surprise came when Keeling’s measurements showed that the rate of decline of O2 was only about two-thirds of that attributable to fossil-fuel combustion during this period. Only one explanation can be given for this observation: Losses of biomass through deforestation must have been outweighed by a fattening of biomass elsewhere, termed global “greening” by geochemists. Although the details as to just how and where remain obscure, the buildup of extra CO2 in our atmosphere and of extra fixed nitrogen in our soils probably allows plants to grow a bit faster than before, leading to a greater storage of carbon in tree wood and soil humus. For each atom of extra carbon stored in this way, roughly one molecule of extra oxygen accumulates in the atmosphere.

Now remember the graph I showed at the beginning of the article? Here is what Australia’s Ray Langenfelds from CSIRO Atmospheric Research has to say about the Cape Grim O2 measurement.

“The changes we are measuring represent just a tiny fraction of the total amount of oxygen in our air – 20.95 percent by volume. The oxygen reduction is just 0.03 percent in the past 20 years and has no impact on our breathing,” Langenfelds. “Typical oxygen fluctuations indoors or in city air would be far greater than this.”

So there you have it. So much for the “oxygen crisis”. I really wish the media would do a better job of researching and reporting science stories. This example from the Guardian shows how bad science and bad reporting combine to create fear mongering.


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Brian D

When your falling, you grab at anything.


How can you, clearly not an expert in these matters, claim otherwise. We must trust our betters in government and media. They always have our best interests at heart.

F Rasmin

Anthony. It is apparently not known in The USA, but The Guardian is the most left wing newspaper in the Western World (outside of the USA).
REPLY: It wouldn’t matter to me what the leaning of the newspaper was. The facts of the story, as presented, create a false impression of a crisis. – Anthony


y = x – .5 * x
y = .5 * x
x = 2 * y
So in prehistoric times oxygen constituted 40% of the atmosphere? It must have been a pyromaniac’s dream

[…] Watts Up With That? _____________________________ […]

I have an excellent solution to the impending oxygen crisis. Pump the atmosphere as full of carbon dioxide as we can – the resulting plant growth will re-oxygenate the biosphere and avert the catastrophe. :0)
I’m wondering who Roddy Newman is.

So we’re currently losing 2 parts per million per year. How long would it take to go from current 21% (210,000 parts per million) to 20% (200,000 parts per million)? Grade school arithmetic follows…
210,000 – 200,000 = 10,000 parts per million
10,000 divided by 2 per year = 5,000 years
So 5,000 years from now the difference would be barely noticable.

> statePoet1775 (23:08:59) :
> So in prehistoric times oxygen constituted 40% of the
> atmosphere? It must have been a pyromaniac’s dream
As pointed out in paleo-atmospheric O2 did get as high as 35% (ouch). We’re talking carboniferous era when the planet was mostly giant swamps. Note also the large sizes of paleo-insects. Insects breathe via spiracles, i.e. tubes throughout their bodies that connect to holes in their outer bodies. This is inefficient compared to lungs, and is the main size-limit for insects today. Paleo-dragonflies, etc, were much larger than today, which is biologically impossible in today’s atmosphere, but perfectly possible in a higher-oxygen atmosphere.

I am glad I did not read this last Wednesday, it might have ruined my blood pressure. I have taken to treating the Guardian with tongs – the cartoons are ok.

Hi Anthony, some estimates of the oxygen trends and other comments about this ludicrous piece are here:
I wouldn’t care that the Grauniad 😉 is a left-wing outlet either except that it is pretty interesting that the most left-wing sources publish the most incredible absurdities about science these days.

M White
M White

Green-red alliance (water mellon alliance)

Richard deSousa

Another stupid story to pad some idiotic climate scientist’s resume….

Adrian S

The Guardian & Enviromentalists do themselves no favours when they publish this sort of rubbish, its a bit like the boy who always cries ” Wolf”.
Should a real envormental problem hit us many people will just say ” its another scare story” and action may be taken too late

This is a general problem; the accuracy of measurements due to improved techniques. Suddenly we see on a micro scale movements of atoms, crystals, bacteria, composition of gases, etc.etc. The deeper we research, the more amazing PHENOMENA we find but at the same time we loose the overvieuw.


The only thing the Guardian article shows is that the layman is easily convinced by a melange of selected quotes from maverick scientists. Big deal, you only need to read climate blogs to see that in action every day! ;o)


Preserve us from people with books to flog….

Tom in Florida

I now see the connection. Increasing human population breathes more O2 and exhales more CO2. O2 decreases 2ppm/yr and CO2 increases 2ppm/yr. Now if I can just get a hockey stick graph to prove this ………


His website will illustrate all you need to know.


However, in 100,000 years the level of O2 will be too low to support animal life — assuming of course that the very short term trend observed is never reversed.


Being people have died due to Oxygen Toxicity. This gas is obviously bad for us. EPA needs to ban oxygen and remove it from the environment.
How many more will need to die before this problem is addressed?

Fred Middleton

Wolf! Wolf!
Tell a BIG Lie
Keep it simple
Tell it often
People (sheeple) will believe
Judas Goat is a live performance by the watermelon religion.
As to understanding how the dominant human specie has traversed to 2008 – man is evil? May your offering of free thought-discussion (Watts Up) be allowed tomorrow.
From Dr. Konstantin Buteyko’s 1923-2003 respiratory/asthma work (first person translation).
“Living cell left itself very good in that period. But Earth covered by the green vegetation took up almost all atmosphere carbonic acid. Look at the table, please. There are only 0,03% carbonic acid (CO2) in Earth atmosphere at now! Human cell can not live good in such conditions. Human cell demands 7% carbonic acid as before.”

More wonderful lies from the left! As sometimes points out, we have to do more than laugh at the professional liars.
We have to pray for their poor, lost souls.
They’ve sold them for the proverbial “mess of pottage”, and our prayers may be the only chance they have to avoid an eternity of anguish.

The value in promoting this story is that, run in parallel with the CO2-will-be-the-end-of-us panic, it generates a sense of perspective and promotes a much needed sense of humour.


Let’s see: an 0.03% change in oxygen concentration would be similar to an ambient pressure change of 0.03% of 1000 hPa, which is 0.3 hPa. If we then assume that at Earth’s surface a 100 hPa altitude change equals roughly one km (1000m), 0.3 hPa would equal an altitude change of three meters. Oh dear, I really have to start worrying when I go upstairs tonight …

Bruce Cobb

The supposed concern for human health posited by Twitchell is, of course a red herring, since environmental extremists actually hate humanity, and would like nothing better than for us to die off, thus saving Gaia.
Air pollution is of much greater concern, and appears to affect children especially, reducing lung function via chronic inflamation. An increasingly sedentary lifestyle also reduces lung capacity, and thus our oxygen intake, as does simply not breathing properly.
The concern about supposed O2 depletion is not only ridiculous, but is a faux concern. The goals of the radical Left, Greens, radical enviros are well known and need not be repeated. This is just another in their big bag of tricks to try to scare people back to the stone age.

I think Brian D said it best: “When your falling, you grab at anything.”
Over the past several days we’ve seen this blog inundated with Pogies, each attempting to shoot down the latest discoveries. And although all have failed miserably, in their minds they claim successes!
We are not only hitting a nerve, were drilling without Novocaine. The deceivers and manipulators attempting to foist their AGW nonsense on the world would have succeeded before Gore invented the INet, but those days began to crumble with Arpnet, the Compuserve Information Services dial-up network, and successors like Prodigy.
The media hasn’t lost their readership/viewership because of the Internet, they lost them because the INet allowed researchers to expose their nitwitery for what it is/was: a pack of advocacy lies and distortions.
We still have a long ways to go and pundits like counters, Joel Shore, Lee and the like will continue flip flopping around like so many fish out of the water. And although most regulars on this blog chuckle at the “challenged” information these RC types post on WUWT, they’ll continue thinking they’re convincing us of their wisdom. In reality, they re-enforce the common view they’re off-the-wall!
Jack Koenig, Editor
The Mysterious Climate Project

Robert Wood

OK, Everybody .. don’t move, lie very, very still.
Seriously, he destroys his own argument by mentioning that O2 levels have varied greatly before (the industrial revolution).

Leon Brozyna

Rachel Carson is alive and well in the person of Peter Tatchell. Reading his foaming diatribe of all the ills of modern society, you quickly come across the crowning touch — decreasing oxygen levels may cause an increase in cancer. This is nothing but advocacy journalism {a prime example of an oxymoron}. What passes as journalism these days is nothing but the art of embellishment of press releases.
Walter Dnes (01:02:33) puts the whole matter in perspective. If we continue to use oxygen at current rates, it’ll be 5,000 years before its volume decreases from 21% to 20% of the total atmosphere. A lot will happen in 5,000 years. Hell, a lot will happen in 500 years. What if physicists finally discover dark energy and ways to tap this limitless energy source? This is the sort of possibility that makes the future such an exciting place.
But the future, love for humanity, and excitement is not what environmentalism is about. Its vision is feudal in scope and its fundamental principle is hypocrisy. While self-righteous environmentalists sit at their computers in air conditioned offices, they tell the rest of us mere mortals that we should abandon our energy intensive ways and return to a simpler agrarian life style and live in harmony with nature on only what we can produce from the earth. And if that results in the death of several billion human beings, well, that’s the price humanity will have to pay — as well as regular tithes to our environmental masters in their air conditioned castles on the hill, overseeing their domain and all their dirty suffering serfs. Hmmm — how many serfs will it take living on the manor of Lord Gore to support him in the life style to which he expects to be maintained while saving the planet?

Bill Marsh

Honestly Anthony, what do you expect? you think the author would do his research and write a story that says, “Oxygen content of the atmosphere, nothing here?”
He set out with the idea that there was a ‘crisis’, if it bleeds, it leads.
ROFL at his main source being a ‘Professor of Philosophy and System Sciences”.

kum dollison

Since whatever O2 loss there is seems to come from burning fossil fuels, and we will be, more or less, out of fossil fuels in 50 – 100 years, I guess I can sleep tonight.


Bad science + Bad reporting = “Daily Planet” And “Quirks and Quarks” (Canadian network “science” shows) I will watch for the hysteria, no doubt soon to be all over the CBC… How long until they calculate an O2 tax? Or propose an O2 shift?


Walter Dnes,
Thank you. That is fascinating, especially the large insects.


We’ll have to call that the Watts Formula:
bad science + bad reporting = fear mongering


UK doctors use the acronym grolies (Guardian reader of limited intelligence in ethnic skirt/shirt) to describe the typical Guardian reader on their medical records.

Steve in SC

This guy is not only adding to the supply of CO2 by breathing he is diminishing the supply of oxygen by the same action. He needs to stop that right now! 🙂


Adrian, that is indeed the risk they are taking. They believe however that if they can get the CO2 laws passed (emissions caps, CO2 tax, CO2 market, funding for solar, biofuels, etc.) they will have succeeded.
Its much harder for government to repeal a law than to pass it. Write your legislators, remind them that your vote is tied to rational action (or inaction) on their part.

Bill Illis

There is a point where CO2 levels would be very unhealthy for us, something like 4,000 ppm.
Now there is not nearly enough fossils fuels for us to ever come close to that level but at least that thought has some science behind it.

Fred . . .

it is amazing how proudly this dufus displays his complete stupidity and his total lack of science knowledge.
Proudly telling the world he is stupid.
Only a left wing greeny socialist agitator could be proud of himself.

Tom Shields

I noted that Mr. Tatchell commented in his article that “I am not a scientist, but this seems a reasonable concern.” This statement has now become a substitution for actual scientific credentials. Starting with attorney and career politician, Al Gore, it seems all the promotors of global warming seem to lack the basic scientific knowledge and training to even comment on this complex subject, let alone write an article for a major newspaper. What Mr. Tatchell should have said is “I am not a scientist, but it’s fun to pretend I am.”

Peter Hearnden

So, people aren’t interested in how oxygen concentration varies across the planet? How it varies in cities? I am, but, hey, perhaps a dark age of censorship of such research should be upon us? After all, inconvenient data is the enemy – right? I’m sure if commentators here had their way that to be interested in such a thing is to be (reach for the garlic fellas) that great hate figure Rachael Carson reborn, and clearly no worse things exists – well bar ‘Gore’ and ‘Hansen’ and sundry others.
What a narrow, intolerant place this is at times 🙁 A slightly left of centre newspaper in the English speaking word print an opinion and that sparks frothing intolerance in you lot? it’s a pretty sahocking sight to behold.
Oh and yes, I do get the idea that to be anything other than a paid up card carrying unwavering sceptic is to want to send us all back the the stone age – it really is that polarised here. indeed, I’ve read said that many times I think it’s all some people think…
REPLY: Peter what basis do you have for implying that I’ve applied censorship about oxygen levels in cities? A reply is required.
And what about the article itself? Do you agree with its premise, or would you just prefer to stick to “sparking frothing intolerance” instead of discussing the science facts of the article?
You comment seems more emotional than factual.

Mike McMillan

Given that the passenger oxygen masks are required to drop in an airliner when the cabin altitude climbs to 10,000 ft, we have about 58,000 years before we reach the government-approved depletion limit.
But of course, government regulations may have changed by then.

Peter Hearnden

Anthony, I imply no such thing of you – ‘people’ isn’t singular. I do though oppose the hysteria of and attitudes shown in this thread. People (again, plural) are falling over themselves to condemn the story, simply knee jerk condemn it. It IS (yes, imo) a sorry sight to behold.
I’ve read the article – I try to read all side, all views. Do you think it’s right oxygen levels are lower in cities? I don’t know but I would like to know more. But, of course, rubbishing the Guardian or Tatchell (who truth to be told I’m no fan of) is easier for most here. After all they are not right wing so obviously they must be wrong…
REPLY: Thank you for the clarification. Yes I think oxygen levels are probably lower in cities. But that’s hardly news, nor is it a “crisis”. You know Peter, you are making some pretty broad assumptions. You might note what I say in comments yesterday about the newspaper when one commenter told me about it. I knew nothing of the newspaper’s leanings, nor of the author when I wrote the post. What I did know is that his article is in fact rubbish, and unsupportable by observation and calculation. That isn’t an opinion, it is backed up factually.
In a free society with a free press, if we don’t chastise those that print imagined crises or twisted facts, then we derive no value from having a free press. Science is self correcting, unfortuantely media seems not to be. Hence, the level of agitation. Tachell could have easily checked these facts with a couple of minutes of Googling. But I think from his perspective “FUD sells”.
So if you don’t like the fact that we are taking him to task factually, I’m sorry. As we sometimes say here “tough noogies”.
UPDATE TO MY REPLY: After pondering what you’ve said a bit more, I think I shall do this properly, and provide readers with the address to complain directly to the Guardian editors, where it may do some good.

David S

This science journalism thing sounds like an entertaining way to way to make a few bucks. Maybe I should try it. I could start off with the old dihydrogen monoxide scare. They I’ll follow that up with a story about the fact that the Andromeda galaxy will collide with our galaxy. (No need to mention that it won’t happen for billions of years. What the heck, there’s no harm in being prepared.) Then I’ll do one on the alleged Big Foot corpse that was recently found. And I’ll say he died from global warming. With all that fur, Big Foots (Big Feet?) are sensitive to higher temperatures. I’ll claim that Big Foots are near extinction because of human activities. That’s why they are rarely seen today. Then I’ll start a movement to save the Big Foots. And I’ll get a grant from congress to study the problem and find potential solutions. Wow science can be fun and profitable!


Well, the way I see it, man will definitely have to change his ways.
Sometime during the next 100,000 years.

Bruce Cobb

Peter, it’s interesting that you conveniently focus on the lower O2 in cities aspect of the article, which was something twitchum only mentions in passing.
Forget the fact that he blames “much” of the supposed decline in O2 from prehistoric 30-35% to today’s 21% on the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels.
Is lower O2 in cities a possible health risk? Maybe. And if his article was about that, perhaps it would have had at least some merit. I’d argue, though, that air pollution (which doesn’t include C02, by the way) is a much greater threat to human health, particularly in places like China, but also here, of course.


The deceivers and manipulators attempting to foist their AGW nonsense on the world would have succeeded
I don’t think they are deceptive (any more than typical considering the usual human condition), but they have been quite thoughtless.
Now that the public is getting some notion of the perceived costs (something like a third to half of economic growth, if not more), there are widening calls for a closer examination of the issue.
If the proposed costs for “solving” GW were as cheap as, say, replacing CFCs with something more expensive and less efficient, we’d have just done that, moved on, and not looked more closely at the science involved.
But now that the incredible costs are finally staring the public right in the face there is considerable pause.
I, for one, believe that a loss of 1% of Gross World Product would result in far, far more deaths (greater poverty, etc., etc.) than GW would even if the IPCC version were true.

There is SO much O2 in the atmosphere, it is believed to not be substantially affected by vegetation, but it is the result of geochemistry in deep-ocean sediments…no one really knows for sure.
Since too much O2 is not good for humans, the human body keeps O2 concentrations down around 5% in our major organs. Extra O2 can give you a burst of energy, but it will harm you if the exposure is too long.
It has been estimated that global wildfire risk would increase greatly if O2 concentrations were much more than they are now.

Oh God.
And these people are eligible to vote ??


Peter, what is wrong with rubbishing the Guardian? It is a miserable rag that plays on the fears of it’s readers.
It has exacerbated the irrational time and time again.
p.s. ever scince Tachell arrested Mugabe i’ve had a soft spot for him.