The hypothesis that the establishment of a permanently oxygenated atmosphere at the Archaean-Proterozoic transition (approximately 2.5 billion years ago) occurred when oxygen-producing cyanobacteria evolved is contradicted by biomarker evidence for their presence in rocks 200 million years older. To sustain vanishingly low oxygen levels despite near-modern rates of oxygen production from approximately 2.7-2.5 billion years ago thus requires that oxygen sinks must have been much larger than they are now. Here we propose that the rise of atmospheric oxygen occurred because the predominant sink for oxygen in the Archaean era-enhanced submarine volcanism-was abruptly and permanently diminished during the Archaean-Proterozoic transition. Observations are consistent with the corollary that subaerial volcanism only became widespread after a major tectonic episode of continental stabilization at the beginning of the Proterozoic. Submarine volcanoes are more reducing than subaerial volcanoes, so a shift from predominantly submarine to a mix of subaerial and submarine volcanism more similar to that observed today would have reduced the overall sink for oxygen and led to the rise of atmospheric oxygen.