How could you remove all the oxygen from Earth's Atmosphere? Hypothetically

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Hey all,

I'm a science thriller author (www.jeremyrobinsononline.com) and I've got a new story idea with a really big problem. Basically, I need to remove all of the oxygen from Earth's atmosphere, preferably fast, but I can adapt to a longer time frame if need be. Now, this is for a novel so it only needs to be rooted by facts...so imaginations are welcome.

ALSO possible for the story would be poisoning the atmosphere...keeping the O2, but making it toxic. But removing the O2 is somehow cooler, I think.

I have some ideas, but nothing great. Any thoughts? Oh, and this would have to be either natural (cosmic counts) or natural but triggered by man. No doomsday devices like the O2 Destroyer in Godzilla. :)

Thanks for your help!

-- Jeremy Robinson
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
mgb_phys
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Simple - burn all the fossil fuels.
Pretty much all the free oxygen in the atmosphere comes from plants photosynthesizing CO2, capturing the carbon and releasing O2. To reverse the process simply burn the captured carbon.
 
  • #3
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Hmmm, good idea, but that would take a looong time. I should probably define my timetable. Think cataclysmic. The fast the better, but the longest it could take is about a month, killing everyone on Earth...well, almost everyone. :smile:

-- Jeremy
 
  • #4
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Y'know, I had a very similar idea for a sci-fi novel. But I'm not an author heh! I imagined nitrogen-breathing aliens from Proxima Centauri basically zapping all the oxygen out of our atmosphere using some kind of antimatter (anti-oxygen) bomb. A bright flash - and all the oxygen is gone, leaving just the nitrogen so the aliens can step in & take over! There are two scientists scuba-diving in the bay, investigating radionuclide contamination, and when they come up to the surface they discover there is no air. With just an hour or so of oxygen left in their tanks, they must find a fresh supply of oxygen or die! But they are out in the middle of the bay, and their motorboat won't fire up because there is no oxygen to combust in the engine...etc etc...

I'm pretty sure there's an old '50s (?) B-grade sci-fi movie with a similar kind of theme - eg all the oxygen gone from the atmosphere. The title is eluding me. I haven't seen it, but I've read about it in one of my sci-fi movie compendiums.
 
  • #5
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There are two scientists scuba-diving in the bay, investigating radionuclide contamination, and when they come up to the surface they discover there is no air. With just an hour or so of oxygen left in their tanks, they must find a fresh supply of oxygen or die! But they are out in the middle of the bay, and their motorboat won't fire up because there is no oxygen to combust in the engine...etc etc...
Cryptonic, you nailed it! That's the story...or at least the beginning. But it won't be two scientists, it will be one. And it won't be aliens. I have to stay in the science thriller realm, which excludes aliens (or at least an invading force). The story will be more about the one survivor of the natural event, moving from oxygen source to oxygen source, and then later on discovering he's not the only one who survived...but the other survivors aren't so nice--they're not zombies.

I'm guessing that an anti-oxygen bomb large enough to destroy all the O2 in the atmosphere would be beyond human capabilities... And I still think a natural phenomenon would be best. Lightning destroys oxygen, yes? Could, say, a close call with a comet, create some kind of world wide storm? Pushing it, I know, but it's one of my few ideas.

Thanks for the input, guys. Enjoying it!

-- Jeremy
 
  • #6
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Heh yeah it's a really good opening premise for a story - straight into the "race against time" kinda thing.

I often scribble out plots and try to flesh them out. Alas, I don't seem to have the discipline to actually start writing the damn thing :frown:

I haven't read any of your books, but I will definitely grab a couple off Amazon and try them out. I enjoyed Rollins' The Black Order, which you recommend on your website. I also liked Laws' Chasm a lot. (Actually, I'm really a big retro-head, I love A E van Vogt and Damon Knight and Philip K Dick etc heh!).

The movie I was thinking off is "http://www.cinemademerde.com/Last_Woman_on_Earth.shtml"", a Roger Corman movie. I haven't seen it, but seems to be similar to our ideas ha (scuba divers coming up out of the ocean to find all the oxygen gone!).

A few things I was stuck on, though... Is it just "exposed" oxygen in the air that is annihilated? How does oxygen in scuba tanks etc remain unaffected? The oxygen in H20/oceans is left unaffected? All the plants die? I kinda gave up on the whole thing, but it is fun imagining.

Good luck with your story, it sounds fun.
 
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  • #7
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I'd recommend getting the new one, PULSE. Comes out May 26th. My first hard cover, and by far, my best book! Picture Black Order (my favorite Rollins/Sigma book) on speed with a lot more killing...and monsters. After that, check out Antarktos Rising and Kronos. Both have religious themes, so if you're opposed to that, maybe hold off. :smile:

And yeah, I'm thinking it's just the exposed oxygen. The event, whatever it is, happens fast. Oxygen in the water remains. All stored oxygen (scuba tanks, hospital O2 tanks, etc). And oxygen beneath the surface of the earth remains, to an extent. Plant life would do just fine, I believe. They produce oxygen, so eventually, oxygen would return.

That's actually a really good question. How long would it take for the earth's oxygen to replenish... Hmm... For my story, I need it to come back, just enough to breath, even if it's like being on top of Everest.

I'm still in the idea stage, so I'm open to any thoughts.

-- Jeremy
 
  • #8
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Just read The Last Woman on Earth page you listed. Funny. They ran into the "how to remove the oxygen and how to replenish it" issue as well, but it seems they just made stuff up! Ahh, the sixties. If only I were writing then.

-- Jeremy
 
  • #9
MATLABdude
Science Advisor
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Could you run the Oxygen catastrophe in reverse?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxygen_revolution

Somehow, anaerobic life forms would need one heck of an advantage to overtake us oxygen breathers. Alien terraforming project?

You could also have a few centuries of nuclear winter; no photosynthesis, no oxygen. The last vestiges of humankind being suffocated out? The nuclear winter (massive hydrogen bomb carpeting or asteroids bombarded into the earth) could be a first strike, but that may not be the kind of novel you're looking to write.

EDIT: Just re-read the precepts in the first paragraph... Working under the precepts of "go big or go home" the first terraformers develop a strain of bacteria that go hyperactive, multiplying rapidly and metabolizing like crazy, designed to rapidly produce CO2 and create a greenhouse effect when you're facing an ice age. Some of this stuff gets loose. Oops.

We decide to mine methane hydrate fields, but underestimate their extent and how easily destabilized they are:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methane_hydrate
(Looks like this plot has been used a number of times already...)

Someone decides to detonate a fusion bomb at a tectonic plate boundary on the Rim of Fire, hoping to relieve tectonic pressure, and stave off an imminent massive Earthquake. Unfortunately, this degasses the entire Rim of Fire, releasing gigatons of built-up CO2; a more massive variant of Lake Nyos:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Nyos
 
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  • #10
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I'll definitely grab Pulse, it's up for preorder on Amazon, cool!

I don't think plant life would survive without oxygen, as plants respire as well as photosynthesize. Maybe certain algae and bacteria would survive and help replenish the oxygen? Dunno.
 
  • #11
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I am going to take a really deep breath,hold it in and see if that works.I will report back.



No it didn't work. There goes another theory.

:redface::confused:
 
  • #12
sylas
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There are some huge problems with this, of course.

The atmosphere has about 1.2*1018 kilograms of oxygen. Whereever that oxygen goes, you have something like 2.3 tonnes of oxygen for every square meter of Earth's surface.

If the oxygen ends up as another gas in the atmosphere, it's bound to be something with more than two atoms per molecule, and you'll have the mother of all greenhouse effects, and probably be poisonous. If the oxygen ends up drawn out of the atmosphere, you'll have the air pressure drop to about 800 hPa, or about what you have up a mountain 2000m high.

Here's my suggestion. Don't give a mechanism at all! Go with the reduced air pressure, and leave it as a mystery. The people facing this problem have a major puzzle of survival, but a secondary puzzle of figuring out how it happened. You can have them speculating about some alternative possibilities, and raising the objections to each one; but they don't ever have to figure it out! Use some ideas from here or anywhere, and have them not as the one true explanation from an omniscient narrator, but as ideas that the characters throw around in the story, without ever resolving it.

Cheers -- sylas
 
  • #13
MATLABdude
Science Advisor
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...
Here's my suggestion. Don't give a mechanism at all! Go with the reduced air pressure, and leave it as a mystery. The people facing this problem have a major puzzle of survival, but a secondary puzzle of figuring out how it happened. You can have them speculating about some alternative possibilities, and raising the objections to each one; but they don't ever have to figure it out! Use some ideas from here or anywhere, and have them not as the one true explanation from an omniscient narrator, but as ideas that the characters throw around in the story, without ever resolving it.

Cheers -- sylas
Character-driven story? Pshaw! Seriously though, reminds me of a movie I heard about, Last Night:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_Night_(film [Broken])
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0156729/

EDIT: Non-specific cataclysm ends Earth at midnight, how do a bunch of characters spend their last night on Earth?
 
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  • #14
Xnn
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Maybe a very large comet made up of hydrogen and methane hits earth and catches on fire. It hits Antarctica so that the ice melts and causes a flood too, but since the fire is at the pole, only a few people perish during the initial impact. However, it's so big that oxygen levels fall significantly over a few weeks. Oxygen doesn't go to all the way to zero, just low enough that people need equipment to raise oxygen levels back up. Plants on the other hand, do just fine.

Divers and mountain exploreres are the main groups of people with the right equipment.
 
  • #15
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I'm digging the comet strike Antarctica idea...but I already thawed Antarctica in Antarktos Rising... so readers might see that as rehashing an old idea. Though I didn't use a comet for that. Impact could also set off a bunch of volcanoes, speeding things up.

Sylas, awesome information. There will be, clearly, some holes in the science here. I think its safe to assume that 99% of my readers, or perhaps more, will have no idea about the weight of oxygen. So I think we're safe there.

Going to reveal a little more of the story. There is a group of people (I can't say who) who KNOW that the event is going to happen, prepare for it, and survive underground. Our lone survivor eventually stumbles upon these survivors and isn't exactly welcome. So, the event, like the comet, must be something certain people could see coming and predict its effect.

I suppose it may also be more believable (though a little more hokey) if it wasn't a natural event, but something done by these people. Much more malevolent...and perhaps fun...starting a novel with the antagonists succeeding in the plans for global annihilation. Hmmm.

Taking this angle. Any thoughts on how humanity could, quickly, remove the oxygen from the atmosphere or poison the atmosphere, killing all life (leaving plants and oceans intact). I know, I'm stretching things, but it's a great opener to a novel!

Thanks!

-- Jeremy
 
  • #16
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Hydrogen and helium tend to escape from earths atmosphere because they are "light atoms" and tend to reach escape velocity.Expressing this differently earths gravity is not strong enough to hold them down.At extremely high temperatures oxygen and nitrogen also could reach escape velocity.I'ts just a thought.
 
  • #17
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Can you define "extremely high temperatures"? I'm guessing it would also burn everything on the surface of the planet as well, yes? Like a big burnt marshmallow.
 
  • #18
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How about if there's a lifeform which has grown so large that it breathes all of the O2 out of the air, converting it all to CO2. It could be genetic engineering gone wrong, with runaway growth that can't be stopped. After it runs out of O2 it dies and the trees have to start replenishing the O2 again.
 
  • #19
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Can you define "extremely high temperatures"? I'm guessing it would also burn everything on the surface of the planet as well, yes? Like a big burnt marshmallow.
The higher the temperature the faster the escape.At about 80000 degrees Celcius most of the atmospheric molecules will reach escape velocity.Yes, the earth will turn into a big marshmallow man but this time there will be no one to terrorise.
 
  • #20
chemisttree
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One could imagine a large cloud of iron gas or finely divided particles out there in space. The sun's solar wind usually keeps this dust cloud at bay near the heliopause, ploughing up and concentrating the huge iron rich cloud near that boundary but something is wrong with the sun.... Sunspot activity is at an all time low and with it the solar winds are diminishing. The heliopause approaches the outer solar system. Jupiter's immense magnetic field attracts the larger particles of the cloud and slings them inward toward the inner planets. EARTH IS DOOMED. The steady rain of finely divided iron strikes the earth's upper atmosphere and is converted to iron oxide in a steady display of a new and frightening aurora.
 
  • #21
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One could imagine a large cloud of iron gas or finely divided particles out there in space. The sun's solar wind usually keeps this dust cloud at bay near the heliopause, ploughing up and concentrating the huge iron rich cloud near that boundary but something is wrong with the sun.... Sunspot activity is at an all time low and with it the solar winds are diminishing. The heliopause approaches the outer solar system. Jupiter's immense magnetic field attracts the larger particles of the cloud and slings them inward toward the inner planets. EARTH IS DOOMED. The steady rain of finely divided iron strikes the earth's upper atmosphere and is converted to iron oxide in a steady display of a new and frightening aurora.
That sounds great chemisttree.
 
  • #22
Evo
Mentor
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Cryptonic, you nailed it! That's the story...or at least the beginning. But it won't be two scientists, it will be one. And it won't be aliens. I have to stay in the science thriller realm, which excludes aliens (or at least an invading force). The story will be more about the one survivor of the natural event, moving from oxygen source to oxygen source, and then later on discovering he's not the only one who survived...but the other survivors aren't so nice--they're not zombies.

I'm guessing that an anti-oxygen bomb large enough to destroy all the O2 in the atmosphere would be beyond human capabilities... And I still think a natural phenomenon would be best. Lightning destroys oxygen, yes? Could, say, a close call with a comet, create some kind of world wide storm? Pushing it, I know, but it's one of my few ideas.

Thanks for the input, guys. Enjoying it!

-- Jeremy
A loss of a planet's magnentic field would allow solar winds to strip away the atmoshpere (over a very, very long time). As we know, the earth's magnetic field is due for a flip, which could leave the earth with an extremely weakend or little to no field for awhile. Of course this has happened many, many times in earth's history with no ill effect. That hasn't stopped wild stories about the cataclysmic effects of this flip.

Depending on how far you are willing to stretch the truth, and based on movies I've seen, stretching the truth isn't a concern, an intense solar storm at the exact time of a flip could cause devastating effects to the earth's atmosphere, well, not in reality, but it would work in a movie, maybe throw a comet strike in at the same time. :rofl:
 
  • #23
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chemisttree, forgive my ignorance, but how would iron oxide doom the earth? Would it, essentially, make the air unbreathable? Poisonous? What is the effect of iron oxide when inhaled? Or does the creation of iron oxide use up the oxygen? I like the idea! I just need to fully understand the effect it would have on people...and perhaps how long it would last.

Evo, also a good idea. The effect your talking about it Polar Shift, correct. Some novels have used this where a bad guy is trying to make it happen and the good guys stop them. And I'm 100% not opposed to using it! In my novel Antarktos Rising, I start by using a similar theory that is much more far fetched--crustal displacement, where I actually shifted the physical poles of the earth (I thaw Antarctica)! So shifting the magnetic poles...not an issue. I think I'd just need to evaluate whether or not my fans would think I was rehashing old material by shifting poles again...even though they're magnetic instead of physical.

Really enjoying these ideas, everyone!

-- Jeremy
 
  • #24
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Aha! chemisttree, I was able to find out that too much iron oxide in the system would cause Iron Poisoning...which has these nasty symptoms resulting in death. Perfect!

"The first indication of iron poisoning by ingestion is a pain in the stomach, as the stomach lining becomes ulcerated. This is accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The pain then abates for 24 hours as the iron passes deeper into the body and damages internal organs, particularly the brain and the liver, and metabolic acidosis develops. The body goes into shock and death from liver failure."

So, filling the atmosphere with copious amounts of iron oxide could, in theory (in a novel :smile:) kill all living, breathing creature on the surface of the planet in...say...two days? Day 1 = stomach pain, nausea, vomiting followed by, "Hey I feel better!" then Day 2, everyone drops like flies on a bug zapper. That might do the trick.

Eventually, I'm assuming, the iron oxide would fall to the ground...perhaps poisoning water (unless filtered). A promising lead.

-- Jeremy
 
  • #25
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Aha! chemisttree, I was able to find out that too much iron oxide in the system would cause Iron Poisoning...which has these nasty symptoms resulting in death. Perfect!

"The first indication of iron poisoning by ingestion is a pain in the stomach, as the stomach lining becomes ulcerated. This is accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The pain then abates for 24 hours as the iron passes deeper into the body and damages internal organs, particularly the brain and the liver, and metabolic acidosis develops. The body goes into shock and death from liver failure."

So, filling the atmosphere with copious amounts of iron oxide could, in theory (in a novel :smile:) kill all living, breathing creature on the surface of the planet in...say...two days? Day 1 = stomach pain, nausea, vomiting followed by, "Hey I feel better!" then Day 2, everyone drops like flies on a bug zapper. That might do the trick.

Eventually, I'm assuming, the iron oxide would fall to the ground...perhaps poisoning water (unless filtered). A promising lead.

-- Jeremy
I'm sure there would be a multitude of effects with chemisttrees or anybody elses idea and it would be an enormous task to predict them all.I think,however,that chemistree was thinking mainly of a chemical reaction in the atmosphere,the iron will react with the oxygen to produce iron oxide thereby removing the oxygen.If the iron particles entered the atmosphere at speed the temperature will be high and that coupled with the fact that the iron particles are small will make the reactions very rapid.Many of the iron particles may be trapped for a while in low earth orbits and as they enter the atmosphere they will burn up giving a spectacular light show including, perhaps a glowing ring surrounding the earth.chemistrees idea is a great one and I can see some of it in my mind as I write this.
 

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