Tag Archives: Snowball Earth

Snowball Earth: A result of global tectonic change?

The Snowball Earth hypothesis first arose when Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson (1882-1958)speculated towards the end of his career on an episode of global glaciations, based on his recognition in South Australia of thick Neoproterozoic glacial sediments. Further discoveries on every continent, together with precise dating and palaeomagnetic indications of the latitude at which they were laid down, have steadily concretised Mawson’s musings. It is now generally accepted that frigid conditions enveloped the globe at least twice – the Sturtian (~715 to 660 Ma) and Marinoan (650 to 635 Ma) glacial episodes – and perhaps more often during the Neoproterozoic Era. Such an astonishing idea has spurred intensive studies of geochemistry associated with the events, which showed rapid variations in carbon isotopes in ancient seawater, linked to the terrestrial carbon cycle that involves both life- and Earth processes. Strontium isotopes suggest that the Neoproterozoic launched erratic variation of continental erosion and weathering and related carbon sequestration that underpinned major climate changes in the succeeding Phanerozoic Eon. Increased marine phosphorus deposition and a change in sulfur isotopes indicate substantial change in the role of oxygen in seawater. The preceding part of the Proterozoic Eon is relatively featureless in most respects and is known to some geoscientists as the ‘Boring Billion’.

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Artist’s impression of the glacial maximum of a Snowball Earth event (Source: NASA)

Noted tectonician Robert Stern and his colleague Nathan Miller, both of the University of Texas, USA, have produced a well- argued and -documented case (and probably cause for controversy) that suggests a fundamental change in the way the Precambrian Earth worked at the outset of the Neoproterozoic (Stern, R.J. & Miller, N.R. 2018. Did the transition to plate tectonics cause Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth. Terra Nova, v. 30, p. 87-94). To the geochemical and climatic changes they have added evidence from a host of upheavals in tectonics. Ophiolites and high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphic rocks, including those produced deep in the mantle, are direct indicators of plate tectonics and subduction. Both make their first, uncontested appearance in the Neoproterozoic. Stern and Miller ask the obvious question; Was this the start of plate tectonics? Most geologists would put this back to at least the end of the Archaean Eon (2,500 Ma) and some much earlier, hence the likelihood of some dispute with their views.

They consider the quiescent billion years (1,800 to 800 Ma) before all this upheaval to be evidence of a period of stagnant ‘lid tectonics’, despite the Rodinia supercontinent having been assembled in the latter part of the ‘Boring Billion’, although little convincing evidence has emerged to suggest it was an entity formed by plate tectonics driven by subduction. But how could the onset of subduction-driven tectonics have triggered Snowball Earth? An early explanation was that the Earth’s spin axis was much more tilted in the Neoproterozoic than it is at present (~23°). High obliquity could lead to extreme variability of seasons, particularly in the tropics. A major shift in axial tilt requires a redistribution of mass within a planetary body, leading to true polar wander, as opposed to the apparent polar wander that results from continental drift. There is evidence for such an episode around the time of Rodinia break-up at 800 Ma that others have suggested stemmed from the formation of a mantle superplume beneath the supercontinent.

Considering seventeen possible geodynamic, oceanographic and biotic causes that have been plausibly suggested for global glaciation Stern and Miller link all but one to a Neoproterozoic transition from lid- to plate tectonics. Readers may wish to examine the authors’ reasoning to make up their own minds –  their paper is available for free download as a PDF from the publishers.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Sea-level rise following a Snowball Earth

The Cryogenian Period (850 to 635 Ma) of the Neoproterozoic is named for the intense glacial episodes recorded in strata of that age. There were two that palaeomagnetism  in glaciogenic sedimentary rocks indicates that ice covered all of the continents including those in the tropics, and a third, less extreme one. These episodes, when documented in the 1990s, became dubbed, aptly enough, as ‘Snowball Earth’ events. But evidence for frigidity does not pervade the entire Cryogenian, the glacial events being separated by long periods with no sign anywhere of tillites or glaciomarine diamictites shed by floating ice. Each Snowball Earth episode is everywhere overlain by thick carbonate deposits indicating clear, shallow seas and a massive supply of calcium and magnesium ions to seawater. The geochemical change is a clear indicator of intense chemical weathering of the exposed continents. The combination of Ca and Mg with carbonate ions likewise suggests an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide. For frigidity episodically to have pervaded the entire planet indicates a distinct dearth of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere during those events. The likely explanation for Snowball Earths is one of booms in the abundance of minute marine organisms, perhaps a consequence of the high phosphorus levels in the oceans during the Neoproterozoic when seawater was alkaline. The carbon-isotope record suggests that there were periodic, massive bursts of organic matter that would have drawn down atmospheric CO2, which coincide with the evidence for global frigidity, although marine life continued to flourish.

Artist’s impression of the glacial maximum of a Snowball Earth event (Source: NASA)

Under such ice-bound conditions the build-up of continental glaciers would have resulted in huge falls in global sea level, far exceeding the 150 m recorded during some late-Pleistocene glacial maxima. The end of each Snowball Earth would have led to equally dramatic rises and continental flooding. Such scenarios are well accepted to have occurred when accumulation of volcanic CO2 during full ice cover reached a threshold of global warming potential that could overcome the reflection of solar radiation by the high albedo of ice extending to the tropics. That threshold has been estimated to have been between 400 to 500 times the CO2 content of the atmosphere at present. Yet it has taken an intricate analysis of sedimentary structures that are commonplace in marine sediments of any age – ripple marks – to quantify the pace of sea-level rise at the end of a Snowball Earth event (Myrow, P.M. et al. 2018. Rapid sea level rise in the aftermath of a Neoproterozoic snowball Earth. Science, v. 360, p. 649-651; doi:10.1126/science.aap8612).

The Elatina Formation of South Australia, deposited during the Marinoan (~635 Ma) glaciation, is famous for the intricacy of its sedimentary structures especially in the clastic sedimentary rocks beneath the cap carbonate that marks the end of glacial conditions. Among them are laminated silts and fine sands that were originally thought to be the equivalent of modern varved sediments that form annually as lakes or shallow seas freeze over and then melt with the seasons. Since they contain ripple marks the laminates of the Elatina Formation clearly formed as a result of current flow and wave action – the sea surface was therefore ice free while these sediments accumulated. Careful study of the larger ripples, which are asymmetrical, shows that current-flow directions periodically reversed, suggesting that they formed as a result of tidal flows during the bi-monthly cycle of spring and neap tides in marine deltas. Data from experiments in wave tanks shows that the shapes (expressed as their amplitude to wavelength ratio) of wave ripples depend on the orbital motion of water waves at different depths. The smaller ripples are of this kind. So Myrow and colleagues have been able to tease out a time sequence from the tidal ripples and also signs of any variation in the water depth at which the smaller wave ripples formed.

Ripples on a bedding surface in the Elatina Formation, South Australia. They formed under the influence of tidal current flow. (Credit, University of Guelph, https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/handle/10214/9367?show=full)

Just over 9 metres of the tidal laminate sequence that escaped any erosion was deposited in about 60 years, giving a sedimentation rate of 27 cm per year. This is extremely high by comparison with those in any modern marine basins, probably reflecting the sediment-charged waters during a period of massive glacial melting. Throughout the full 27 m sequence smaller, wave ripples consistently show that water depth remained between 9 to 16 m for about a century. Over such a short time interval any tectonic subsidence or sag due to sediment load would have been minuscule. So sea-level rise kept pace with deposition; i.e. at the same rate of 27 cm per year. That is at least five times faster than during any of the Pleistocene deglaciations and about a hundred times faster than sea-level rise today that is caused by melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps and thermal expansion of ocean water due to global warming. It has been estimated that the Marinoan ice sheets lowered global sea level by between 1.0 to 1.5 km – ten times more than in the last Ice Age – so deglaciation to the conditions of the cap carbonates, shallow, clear seas at around 50°C, would have taken about 6,000 years at the measured rate.

To read more on the Snowball Earth hypothesis and other early glacial epochs click here

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Flourishing life during a Snowball Earth period

That glacial conditions were able to spread into tropical latitudes during the late Neoproterozoic, Cryogenian Period is now well established, as are the time spans of two such events. http://earth-pages.co.uk/2015/05/21/snowball-earth-events-pinned-down/ But what were the consequences for life that was evolving at the time? That something dramatic was occurring is signalled by a series of perturbations in the carbon-isotope composition of seawater. Its relative proportion of 13C to 12C (δ13C) fell sharply during the two main Snowball events and at other times between 850 to 550 Ma. Since 12C is taken up preferentially by living organisms, falls in δ13C are sometimes attributed to periods when life was unusually suppressed. It is certain that the ‘excursions’ indicate that some process(es) must have strongly affected the way that carbon was cycled in the natural world.

English: Earth, covered in ice.

Artist’s impression of a Snowball Earth as it would appear with today’s continental configuration adjacent to the East Pacific Ocean. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The further sea ice extended beyond landmasses during Snowball events the more it would reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the liquid ocean and so photosynthesis would be severely challenged. Indeed, if ice covered the entire ocean surface – the extreme version of the hypothesis – each event must have come close to extinguishing life. An increasing amount of evidence, from climate- and oceanographic modelling and geological observation, suggests that a completely icebound Earth was unlikely. Nevertheless, such dramatic climate shifts would have distressed living processes to the extent that extinction rates were high and so was adaptive radiation of survivors to occupy whatever ecological niches remained or came into being: evolution was thereby speeded up. The roughly half-billion years of the Neoproterozoic hosted the emergence and development of multicellular organisms (metazoan eukaryotes) whose cells contained a nucleus and other bodies such as mitochondria and the chloroplasts of photosynthesisers. This hugely important stage of evolution burst forth shortly after – in a geological sense – the last Snowball event, during the Ediacaran and the Cambrian Explosion. But recent investigations by palaeontologists in glaciogenic rocks from China unearthed a rich diversity of fossil organisms that thrived during a Snowball event (Ye, Q. et al. 2015. The survival of benthic macroscopic phototrophs on a Neoproterozoic snowball Earth. Geology, v. 43, p. 507-510).

The Nantuo Formation in southern China contains glaciogenic sedimentary rocks ascribed to the later Marinoan glaciation (640 to 635 Ma). Unusually, the pebbly Nantuo glaciogenic rocks contain thin layers of siltstones and black shales. The fact that these layers are free of coarse fragments that floating ice may have dropped supports the idea that open water did exist close to glaciated landmasses in what is now southern China. Palaeomagnetic measurements show that the area was at mid-latitudes during the Marinoan event. The really surprising feature is that they contain abundant, easily visible fossils in the form of carbonaceous ribbons , disks, branching masses and some that dramatically resemble complex multi-limbed animals, though they are more likely to be part of an assemblage of algal remains. Whatever their biological affinities, the fossils clearly signify that life happily flourished beneath open water where photosynthesis provided a potential base to a food chain, though no incontrovertible animals occur among them.

See also: Corsetti, F.A. 2015. Live during Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth. Geology, v. 43, p. 559-560.

Snowball Earth events pinned down

The Period that lasted from 850 to 635 million years ago, the Cryogenian, takes its name from evidence for two and perhaps three episodes of glaciation at low latitudes. It has been suggested that, in some way, they were instrumental in the decisive stage of biological evolution from which metazoan eukaryotes emerged: the spectacular Ediacaran fossil assemblages follow on the heels of the last such event Although controversies about the reality of tropical latitudes experiencing ice caps have died away, there remains the issue of synchronicity of such frigid events on all continents, which is the central feature of so-called ‘Snowball Earth’ events. While each continent does reveal evidence for two low latitude glaciations – the Sturtian (~710 Ma) and the later Marinoan (~635 Ma) – in the form of diamictites (sediments probably dropped from floating ice and ice caps) it has proved difficult to date their start and duration. That is, the cold episodes may have been diachronous – similar conditions occurring at different localities at different times. Geochronology has, however, moved on since the early disputes over Snowball Earths and more reliable and precise dates for beginnings and ends are possible and have been achieved in several places (Rooney, A.D. et al. 2015. A Cryogenian chronology: Two long-lasting synchronous Neoproterozoic glaciations. Geology, v. 43, p. 459-462).

One computer simulation of conditions during a...

Computer simulation of conditions during a Snowball Earth period. (credit: Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Hyde et al., Nature 405:425-429, 2000)

Rooney and colleagues from Harvard and the University of Houston in the USA used rhenium-osmium radiometric dating in Canada, Zambia and Mongolia. The Re-Os method is especially useful for sulfide minerals as in the pyritic black shales that occur extensively in the Cryogenian, generally preceding and following the glacial diamictites and their distinctive carbonate caps. Combined with a few ages obtained by other workers using the Re-Os method and U-Pb dating of volcanic units that fortuitously occur immediately beneath or within diamictites, Rooney et al. establish coincident start and stop dates and thus durations of both the Sturtian and Marinoan glacial events: 717 to 660 Ma and 640 to 635 Ma respectively on all three continents. Their data is also said to refute the global extent and even the very existence of an earlier, Kaigas glacial event (~740 Ma) previous recorded from diamictites in Namibia, the Congo, Canada and central Asia. This assertion is based on the absence of diamictites with that age in the area that they studied in Canada and their own dating of a diamictite in Zambia, which is one that others assigned to the Kaigas event

The dating is convincing evidence for global glaciation on land and continental margins in the Cryogenian, as all the dates are from areas based on older continental crust. But the concept of Snowball Earth, in its extreme form, is that the oceans were ice-capped too as the name suggests, which remains to be convincingly demonstrated. That would only be achieved by suitably dated diamictites located on obducted oceanic crust in an ophiolite complex. Moreover, there are plenty more Cryogenian diamictites on other palaeo-continents and formed at different palaeolatitudes that remain to be dated (see here)

The launch of modern life on Earth

To set against five brief episodes of mass extinction – some would count the present as being the beginning of a sixth – is one short period when animals with hard parts appeared for the first time roughly simultaneously across the Earth. Not only was the Cambrian Explosion sudden and pervasive but almost all phyla, the basic morphological divisions of multicellular life, adopted inner or outer skeletons that could survive as fossils. Such an all-pervading evolutionary step has never been repeated, although there have been many bursts in living diversity. Apart from the origin of life and the emergence of its sexual model, the eukaryotes, nothing could be more important in palaeobiology than the events across the Cambrian-Precambrian boundary.

English: Opabinia regalis, from the Cambrian B...

One of the evolutionary experiments during the Cambrian, Opabinia regalis, from the Burgess Shale. (credit: Wikipedia)

This eminent event has been marked by most of the latest issue of the journal Gondwana Research (volume 25, Issue 3 for April 2014)in a 20-paper series called Beyond the Cambrian Explosion: from galaxy to genome (summarized  by Isozaki, Y., Degan, S.., aruyama,, S.. & Santosh, M. 2014. Beyond the Cambrian Explosion: from galaxy to genome.  Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 881-883). Of course, these phenomenal events have been at issue since the 19th century when the division of geological time began to be based on the appearance and vanishing of well preserved and easily distinguished fossils in the stratigraphic column. On this basis roughly the last ninth of the Earth’s history was split on palaeontological grounds into the 3 Eras, 11 Periods, and a great many of the briefer Epochs and Ages that constitute the Phanerozoic. Time that preceded the Cambrian explosion was for a long while somewhat murky mainly because of a lack of means of subdivision and the greater structural and metamorphic damage that had been done to the rocks that had accumulated over 4 billion years since the planet accreted. Detail emerged slowly by increasingly concerted study of the Precambrian, helped since the 1930s by the ability to assign numerical ages to rocks. Signs of life in sediments that had originally been termed the Azoic (Greek for ‘without life’) gradually turned up as far back as 3.5 Ga, but much attention focused on the 400 Ma immediately preceding the start of the Cambrian period once abundant trace fossils had been found in the Ediacaran Hills of South Australia that had been preceded by repeated worldwide glacial epochs. The Ediacaran and Cryogenian Periods (635-541 and 850-635 Ma respectively) of the Neoproterozoic figure prominently in 9 of the papers to investigate or review the ‘back story’ from which the crucial event in the history of life emerged. Six have a mainly Cambrian focus on newly discovered fossils, especially from a sedimentary sequence in southern China that preserves delicate fossils in great detail: the Chengjian Lagerstätte. Others cover geochemical evidence for changes in marine conditions from the Cryogenian to Cambrian and reviews of theories for what triggered the great faunal change.

Since the hard parts that allow fossils to linger are based on calcium-rich compounds, mainly carbonates and phosphates that bind the organic materials in bones and shells, it is important to check for some change in the Ca content of ocean water over the time covered by the discourse. In fact there are signs from Ca-isotopes in carbonates that this did change. A team of Japanese and Chinese geochemists drilled through an almost unbroken sequence of Ediacaran to Lower Cambrian sediments near the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtse River and analysed for 44Ca and 42Ca (Sawaki, Y. et al. 2014. The anomalous Ca cycle in the Ediacaran ocean: Evidence from Ca isotopes preserved in carbonates in the Three Gorges area, South China. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 1070-1089) calibrated to time by U-Pb dating of volcanic ash layers in the sequence (Okada, Y. et al. 2014. New chronological constraints for Cryogenian to Cambrian rocks in the Three Gorges, Weng’an and Chengjiang areas, South China. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 1027-1044). They found that there were significant changes in the ratio between the two isotopes. The isotopic ratio underwent a rapid decrease, an equally abrupt increase then a decrease around the start of the Cambrian, which coincided with a major upward ‘spike’ and then a broad increase in the 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratio in the Lower Cambrian. The authors ascribe this to an increasing Ca ion concentration in sea water through the Ediacaran and a major perturbation just before the Cambrian Explosion, which happens to coincide with Sr-isotope evidence for a major influx of isotopically old material derived from erosion of the continental crust. As discussed in Origin of the arms race (May 2012) perhaps the appearance of animals’ hard parts did indeed result from initial secretions of calcium compounds outside cells to protect them from excess calcium’s toxic effects and were then commandeered for protective armour or offensive tools of predation.

"SNOWBALL EARTH" - 640 million years ago

Artists impression of a Snowball Earth event 640 Ma ago (credit: guano via Flickr)

Is there is a link between the Cambrian Explosion and the preceding Snowball Earth episodes of the Cryogenian with their associated roller coaster excursions in carbon isotopes? Xingliang Zhang and colleagues at Northwest University in Xian, China (Zhang, X. et al. 2014. Triggers for the Cambrian explosion: Hypotheses and problems.  Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 896-909) propose that fluctuating Cryogenian environmental conditions conspiring with massive nutrient influxes to the oceans and boosts in oxygenation of sea water through the Ediacaran set the scene for early Cambrian biological events. The nutrient boost may have been through increased transfer o f water from mantle to the surface linked to the start of subduction of wet lithosphere and expulsion of fluids from it as a result of the geotherm cooling through a threshold around 600 Ma (Maruyama, S. et al. 2014. Initiation of leaking Earth: An ultimate trigger of the Cambrian explosion. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 910-944). Alternatively the nutrient flux may have arisen by increased erosion as a result of plume-driven uplift (Santosh, M. et al. 2014. The Cambrian Explosion: Plume-driven birth of the second ecosystem on Earth. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 945-965).

A bolder approach, reflected in the title of the Special Issue, seeks an interstellar trigger (Kataoka, R. et al. 2014. The Nebula Winter: The united view of the snowball Earth, mass extinctions, and explosive evolution in the late Neoproterozoic and Cambrian periods. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 1153-1163). This looks to encounters between the Solar System and dust clouds or supernova remnants as it orbited the galactic centre: a view that surfaces occasionally in several other contexts. Such chance events may have been climatically and biologically catastrophic: a sort of nebular winter, far more pervasive than the once postulated nuclear winter of a 3rd World War. That is perhaps going a little too far beyond the constraints of evidence, for there should be isotopic and other geochemical signs that such an event took place. It also raises yet the issue that life on Earth is and always has been unique in the galaxy and perhaps the known universe due to a concatenation of diverse chance events, without structure in time or order, which pushed living processes to outcomes whose probabilities of repetition are infinitesimally small.

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Early animals and Snowball Earth

"SNOWBALL EARTH" - 640 million years ago

The Earth 640 million years ago during the Marinoan ‘Snowball’ event (credit: Cornell University via Flickr)

Palaeobiologists generally believe that without a significant boost to oxygen levels in the oceans macroscopic eukaryotes, animals in particular, could not have evolved. Although the first signs of a rise in atmospheric oxygen enter the stratigraphic record some 2.4 billion years ago and eukaryote microfossils appeared at around 2 Ga, traces of bulky creatures suddenly show up much later at ~610 Ma with possible fossil bilaterian embryos preserved in 630 Ma old sediments. An intriguing feature of this Ediacaran fauna is that it appeared shortly after one of the Neoproterozoic global glaciations, the Marinoan ‘Snowball’ event: a coincidence or was there some connection? It has looked very like happenstance because few if any signs of a tangible post-Marinoan rise in environmental oxygen have been detected. Perhaps the sluggish two billion-year accumulation of free oxygen simply passed the threshold needed for metazoan metabolism. But there are other, proxy means of assessing the oxidation-reduction balance, one of which depends on trace metals whose chemistry hinges on their variable valency. The balance between soluble iron-2 and iron-3 that readily forms insoluble compounds is a model, although iron itself is so common in sediments that its concentration is not much of a guide. Molybdenum, vanadium and uranium, being quite rare, are more likely to chart subtle changes in the redox conditions under which marine sediments were deposited.

English: Cropped and digitally remastered vers...

Dickinsonia; a typical Ediacaran animal. Scale in cm (credit: Wikipedia)

Swapan Sahoo of the University of Nevada and colleagues from the USA, China and Canada detected a marked increase in the variability of Mo, V and U content of the basal black shales of the Doushantuo Formation of southern China, which contain the possible eukaryote embryos (Sahoo, S.K and 8 others 2012. Ocean oxygenation in the wake of the Marinoan glaciation. Nature, v. 489, p. 546-549). These rocks occur just above the last member of the Marinoan glacial to post-glacial sedimentary package and are around 632 Ma old. Since the black shales accumulated at depths well below those affected by surface waves that might have permitted local changes in the oxygen content of sea water the geochemistry of their formative environment ought not to have changed if global chemical conditions had been stable: the observed fluctuations may represent secular changes in global redox conditions. The earlier variability settles down to low levels towards the top of the analysed sequence, suggesting stabilised global chemistry.

What this might indicate is quite simple to work out. When the overall chemistry of the oceans is reducing Mo, V and U are more likely to enter sulfides in sediments, thereby forcing down their dissolved concentration in sea water. With a steady supply of those elements, probably by solution from basalt lavas at ocean ridges, sedimentary concentrations should stabilise at high levels in balance with low concentrations in solution. If seawater becomes more oxidising it holds more Mo, V and U in solution and sediment levels decline. So the high concentrations in sediments mark periods of global reducing conditions, whereas low values signal a more oxidising marine environment. Sahoo et al.’s observations suggest that marine geochemistry became unstable immediately after the Marinoan glaciation but settled to a fundamentally more oxidising state than it had been in earlier times, perhaps by tenfold increase in atmospheric oxygen content. So what might have caused this and the attendant potential for animals to get larger in the aftermath of the Snowball Earth event? One possibility is that the long period of glaciers’ grinding down continental crust added nutrients to the oceans. Once warmed and lit by the sun they hosted huge blooms of single-celled phytoplankton whose photosynthesis became an oxygen factory and whose burial in pervasive reducing conditions on the sea bed formed a permanent repository of organic carbon. The outcome an at-first hesitant oxygenation of the planet and then a permanent fixture opening a window of opportunity for the Ediacarans and ultimately life as we know it.

Snowball Earth melting hypothesis weakened

"SNOWBALL EARTH" - 640 million years ago

Artist's impression of the Neoproterozoic Earth during a Snowball episode. Image by guano via Flickr

The combination of glaciogenic sediments with palaeomagnetic evidence for their formation at low-latitudes, together with dates that show glacial events were coeval in just two or three Neoproterozoic episodes are the linchpins for the Snowball Earth hypothesis.  There is little doubt that the latest Precambrian Era did witness such extraordinary climatic events. Evidence is also accumulating that, in some way, they were instrumental in that stage of biological evolution from which metazoan eukaryotes emerged: the spectacular Ediacaran fossil assemblages follow on the heels of the last such event (see Bigging-up the Ediacaran in Earth Pages for March 2011). One of the difficulties with the ‘hard’ Snowball Earth hypothesis is how the middle-aged planet was able to emerge from a condition of pole-to-pole ice cover; hugely increased reflectivity of that surface should have driven mean global temperature down and down. Clearly the Earth did warm up on each occasion, and the leading model for how that was possible is massive release of greenhouse gases from sea-floor sediments or deep-ocean waters to increase the heat-retaining powers of the atmosphere; sufficiently voluminous release from volcanic action seems less likely as there is little evidence of upsurges in magmatism coinciding with the events. Almost all glaciogenic units from the Neoproterozoic have an overlying cap of carbonate rocks, indicating that hydrogen carbonate (formerly bicarbonate) ions together with those of calcium and magnesium suddenly exceeded their solubilities in the oceans.

White flocculent mats in and around the extrem...

Modern sea-floor hydrothermal vent. Image via Wikipedia

To seek out a possible source for sufficient carbon release in gaseous form geochemists have turned to C-isotopes in the cap carbonates. Early studies revealed large deficits in the heavier stable isotope of carbon (13C) that seemed to suggest that the releases were from large reservoirs of carbon formed by burial of dead organisms: photosynthesis and other kinds of autotrophy at the base of the trophic pyramid selectively take up lighter 12C in forming organic tissues compared with inorganic chemical processes). As in the case of the sharp warming event at the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary around 55.8 Ma ago (See The gas-hydrate ‘gun’ in June 2003 Earth Pages), these negative d13C spikes have been interpreted as due to destabilisation of gas hydrates in sea-floor sediments to release organically formed methane gas. This powerful greenhouse gas would have quickly oxidised to CO2 thus acidifying the oceans by jacking up hydrogen carbonate ion concentrations.  Detailed carbon-, oxygen- and strontium-isotope work in conjunction with petrographic textures in a Chinese cap carbonate (Bristow, T.F. et al. 2011. A hydrothermal origin for isotopically anomalous cap dolostone cements from south China. Nature, v. 274, p. 68-71) suggests an alternative mechanism to produce the isotopically light carbon signature at the end of Snowball events. The greatest 13C depletion occurs in carbonate veins that cut through the cap rock and formed at temperatures up to 378°C and even the early-formed fine grained carbonate sediment records anomalously high temperatures. So, it seems as if the cap-rock was thoroughly permeated by hydrothermal fluids, more than 1.6 Ma after it formed on the sea floor. This triggered oxidation of methane within the sediments themselves, with little if any need for an atmospheric origin through massive methane release from destabilised gas hydrates elsewhere.