Sulfate is the second most abundant anion (behind chloride) in modern seawater, and its cycling is intimately coupled to the cycling of organic matter and oxygen at the Earth’s surface. For example, the reduction of sulfide by microbes oxidizes vast amounts of organic carbon and the subsequent reaction of sulfide with iron produces pyrite whose burial in sediments is an important oxygen source to the atmosphere. The concentrations of seawater sulfate and the operation of sulfur cycle have experienced dynamic changes through Earth’s history, and our understanding of this history is based mainly on interpretations of the isotope record of seawater sulfates and sedimentary pyrites. The isotope record, however, does not give a complete picture of the ancient sulfur cycle. This is because, in standard isotope mass balance models, there are more variables than constraints. Typically, in interpretations of the isotope record and in the absence of better information, one assumes that the isotopic composition of the input sulfate to the oceans has remained constant through time. It is argued here that this assumption has a constraint over the last 390 Ma from the isotopic composition of sulfur in coal. Indeed, these compositions do not deviate substantially from the modern surface-water input to the oceans. When applied to mass balance models, these results support previous interpretations of sulfur cycle operation and counter recent suggestions that sulfate has been a minor player in sulfur cycling through the Phanerozoic Eon.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2013, Vol 110, Issue 21, p. 8443-8446