The Snowball Earth hypothesis proposes that Earth’s surface became entirely or nearly entirely frozen at least once, sometime earlier than 650 Mya (million years ago). Proponents of the hypothesis argue that it best explains sedimentary deposits generally regarded as of glacial origin at tropical paleolatitudes, and other otherwise enigmatic features in the geological record. Opponents of the hypothesis contest the implications of the geological evidence for global glaciation, the geophysical feasibility of an ice- or slush-covered ocean, and the difficulty of escaping an all-frozen condition. A number of unanswered questions exist, including whether Earth was a full snowball, or a “slushball” with a thin equatorial band of open (or seasonally open) water.
The snowball Earth episodes occurred before the sudden radiation of multicellular bioforms, known as the Cambrian explosion. The most recent snowball episode may have triggered the evolution of multicellularity. Another, much earlier and longer snowball episode, the Huronian glaciation, which occurred 2400 to 2100 Mya, may have been triggered by the first appearance of oxygen in the atmosphere, the “Great Oxygenation Event.”
The snowball Earth hypothesis was originally devised to explain geological evidence for the apparent presence of glaciers at tropical latitudes. According to modelling, an ice-albedo feedback would result in glacial ice rapidly advancing to the equator once the glaciers spread to within 25° to 30° of the equator. Therefore, the presence of glacial deposits within the tropics suggests global ice cover.
Critical to an assessment of the validity of the theory, therefore, is an understanding of the reliability and significance of the evidence that led to the belief that ice ever reached the tropics. This evidence must prove two things:
- that a bed contains sedimentary structures that could have been created only by glacial activity;
- that the bed lay within the tropics when it was deposited.
During a period of global glaciation, it must also be demonstrated that glaciers were active at different global locations at the same time, and that no other deposits of the same age are in existence.
This last point is very difficult to prove. Before the Ediacaran, the biostratigraphic markers usually used to correlate rocks are absent; therefore there is no way to prove that rocks in different places across the globe were deposited at precisely the same time. The best that can be done is to estimate the age of the rocks using radiometric methods, which are rarely accurate to better than a million years or so.
The first two points are often the source of contention on a case-to-case basis. Many glacial features can also be created by non-glacial means, and estimating the approximate latitudes of landmasses even as recently as 200 million years ago can be riddled with difficulties.
The snowball Earth hypothesis was first posited to explain what were then considered to be glacial deposits near the equator. Since tectonic plates move slowly over time, ascertaining their position at a given point in Earth’s long history is not easy. In addition to considerations of how the recognizable landmasses could have fit together, the latitude at which a rock was deposited can be constrained by palaeomagnetism.
When sedimentary rocks form, magnetic minerals within them tend to align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field. Through the precise measurement of this palaeomagnetism, it is possible to estimate the latitude (but not the longitude) where the rock matrix was formed. Palaeomagnetic measurements have indicated that some sediments of glacial origin in the Neoproterozoic rock record were deposited within 10 degrees of the equator, although the accuracy of this reconstruction is in question. This palaeomagnetic location of apparently glacial sediments (such as dropstones) has been taken to suggest that glaciers extended from land to sea level in tropical latitudes at the time the sediments were deposited. It is not clear whether this implies a global glaciation, or the existence of localized, possibly land-locked, glacial regimes. Others have even suggested that most data do not constrain any glacial deposits to within 25° of the equator.
Low-latitude glacial deposits
Sedimentary rocks that are deposited by glaciers have distinctive features that enable their identification. Long before the advent of the snowball Earth hypothesis many Neoproterozoic sediments had been interpreted as having a glacial origin, including some apparently at tropical latitudes at the time of their deposition. However, it is worth remembering that many sedimentary features traditionally associated with glaciers can also be formed by other means. Thus the glacial origin of many of the key occurrences for snowball Earth has been contested. As of 2007, there was only one “very reliable” – still challenged – datum point identifying tropical tillites, which makes statements of equatorial ice cover somewhat presumptuous. However evidence of sea-level glaciation in the tropics during the Sturtian is accumulating. Evidence of possible glacial origin of sediment includes:
- Dropstones (stones dropped into marine sediments), which can be deposited by glaciers or other phenomena.
- Varves (annual sediment layers in periglacial lakes), which can form at higher temperatures.
- Glacial striations (formed by embedded rocks scraped against bedrock): similar striations are from time to time formed by mudflows or tectonic movements.
- Diamictites (poorly sorted conglomerates). Originally described as glacial till, most were in fact formed by debris flows.
It appears that some deposits formed during the snowball period could only have formed in the presence of an active hydrological cycle. Bands of glacial deposits up to 5,500 meters thick, separated by small (meters) bands of non-glacial sediments, demonstrate that glaciers melted and re-formed repeatedly for tens of millions of years; solid oceans would not permit this scale of deposition. It is considered possible that ice streams such as seen in Antarctica today could have caused these sequences. Further, sedimentary features that could only form in open water (for example: wave-formed ripples, far-traveled ice-rafted debris and indicators of photosynthetic activity) can be found throughout sediments dating from the snowball-Earth periods. While these may represent “oases” of meltwater on a completely frozen Earth, computer modelling suggests that large areas of the ocean must have remained ice-free; arguing that a “hard” snowball is not plausible in terms of energy balance and general circulation models.
Carbon isotope ratios
There are two stable isotopes of carbon in sea water: carbon-12 (12C) and the rare carbon-13 (13C), which makes up about 1.109 percent of carbon atoms.
Biochemical processes, of which photosynthesis is one, tend to preferentially incorporate the lighter 12C isotope. Thus ocean-dwelling photosynthesizers, both protists and algae, tend to be very slightly depleted in 13C, relative to the abundance found in the primary volcanic sources of Earth’s carbon. Therefore, an ocean with photosynthetic life will have a lower 13C/12C ratio within organic remains, and a higher ratio in corresponding ocean water. The organic component of the lithified sediments will forever remain very slightly, but measurably, depleted in 13C.
During the proposed episode of snowball Earth, there are rapid and extreme negative excursions in the ratio of 13C to 12C. This is consistent with a deep freeze that killed off most or nearly all photosynthetic life – although other mechanisms, such as clathrat release, can also cause such perturbations. Close analysis of the timing of 13C ‘spikes’ in deposits across the globe allows the recognition of four, possibly five, glacial events in the late Neoproterozoic.
Banded iron formations
Banded iron formations (BIF) are sedimentary rocks of layered iron oxide and iron-poor chert. In the presence of oxygen, iron naturally rusts and becomes insoluble in water. The banded iron formations are commonly very old and their deposition is often related to the oxidation of the Earth’s atmosphere during the Palaeoproterozoic era, when dissolved iron in the ocean came in contact with photosynthetically produced oxygen and precipitated out as iron oxide.
The bands were produced at the tipping point between an anoxic and an oxygenated ocean. Since today’s atmosphere is oxygen-rich (nearly 21% by volume) and in contact with the oceans, it is not possible to accumulate enough iron oxide to deposit a banded formation. The only extensive iron formations that were deposited after the Palaeoproterozoic (after 1.8 billion years ago) are associated with Cryogenian glacial deposits.
Isotopes of the element boron suggest that the pH of the oceans dropped dramatically before and after the Marinoan glaciation. This may indicate a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, some of which would dissolve into the oceans to form carbonic acid. Although the boron variations may be evidence of extreme climate change, they need not imply a global glaciation.
Earth’s surface is very depleted in the element iridium, which primarily resides in the Earth’s core. The only significant source of the element at the surface is cosmic particles that reach Earth. During a snowball Earth, iridium would accumulate on the ice sheets, and when the ice melted the resulting layer of sediment would be rich in iridium. An iridium anomaly has been discovered at the base of the cap carbonate formations, and has been used to suggest that the glacial episode lasted for at least 3 million years, but this does not necessarily imply a global extent to the glaciation; indeed, a similar anomaly could be explained by the impact of a large meteorite.
Cyclic climate fluctuations
Using the ratio of mobile cations to those that remain in soils during chemical weathering (the chemical index of alteration), it has been shown that chemical weathering varied in a cyclic fashion within a glacial succession, increasing during interglacial periods and decreasing during cold and arid glacial periods. This pattern, if a true reflection of events, suggests that the “snowball Earths” bore a stronger resemblance to Pleistocene ice age cycles than to a completely frozen Earth.
A snowball Earth has profound implications in the history of life on Earth. While many refugia have been postulated, global ice cover would certainly have ravaged ecosystems dependent on sunlight. Geochemical evidence from rocks associated with low-latitude glacial deposits have been interpreted to show a crash in oceanic life during the glacials.
The melting of the ice may have presented many new opportunities for diversification, and may indeed have driven the rapid evolution which took place at the end of the Cryogenian period.