The concept of the oceanic anoxic event (OAE) was first proposed in 1976 by Seymour Schlanger (1927–1990) and geologist Hugh Jenkyns and arose from discoveries made by the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) in the Pacific Ocean. It was the finding of black carbon-rich shales in Cretaceous sediments that had accumulated on submarine volcanic plateaus (Shatsky Rise, Manihiki Plateau), coupled with the fact that they were identical in age with similar deposits cored from the Atlantic Ocean and known from outcrops in Europe - particularly in the geological record of the otherwise limestone-dominated Apennines chain in Italy - that led to the realization that these widespread similar strata recorded highly unusual oxygen-depleted conditions in the world ocean during several discrete periods of geological time.
Sedimentological investigations of these organic-rich sediments, which have continued to this day, typically reveal the presence of fine laminations undisturbed by bottom-dwelling fauna, indicating anoxic conditions on the sea floor, believed to be coincident with a low lying poisonous layer of hydrogen sulfide. Furthermore, detailed organic geochemical studies have recently revealed the presence of molecules (so-called biomarkers) that derive from both purple sulfur bacteria and green sulfur bacteria: organisms that required both light and free hydrogen sulfide (H2S), illustrating that anoxic conditions extended high into the illuminated upper water column.
There are currently several places on earth that are exhibiting the features of anoxic events on a localized scale such as algal/bacterial blooms and localized "dead zones". Dead zones exist off the East Coast of the United States in the Chesapeake Bay, in the Scandinavian strait Kattegat, the Black Sea (which may have been anoxic in its deepest levels for millennia, however), in the northern Adriatic as well as a dead zone off the coast of Louisiana. The current surge of jellyfish worldwide is sometimes regarded as the first stirrings of an anoxic event. Other marine dead zones have appeared in coastal waters of South America, China, Japan, and New Zealand. A 2008 study counted 405 dead zones worldwide.
This is a recent understanding. This picture was only pieced together during the last three decades. The handful of known and suspected anoxic events have been tied geologically to large-scale production of the world's oil reserves in worldwide bands of black shale in the geologic record. Likewise the high relative temperatures believed linked to so called "super-greenhouse events".
Oceanic anoxic events with euxinic (i.e. sulfidic) conditions have been linked to extreme episodes of volcanic outgassing. Thus, volcanism contributed to the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere, increased global temperatures, causing an accelerated hydrological cycle that introduced nutrients to the oceans to stimulate planktonic productivity. These processes potentially acted as a trigger for euxinia in restricted basins where water-column stratification could develop. Under anoxic to euxinic conditions, oceanic phosphate is not retained in sediment and could hence be released and recycled, aiding continued high productivity.