Snowball Earth

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Climate and the Weather

Snowball Period
(millions of years ago)

The Snowball Earth hypothesis is a controversial theory (Sankaran, 2003) that attempts to explain a number of phenomena noted in the geological record by proposing that an ice age that took place in the Neoproterozoic was so severe that the Earth's oceans froze over completely, with only heat from the Earth's planetary core causing some liquid water to persist under ice more than two kilometers thick.

This theory is contested by various scientists. Climate modelling by Dick Peltier at the University of Toronto explains that a low latitude glaciation on the snowball earth scale is not plausible in terms of energy balance and general circulation models. As well, recent work has shown that the oceans were unfrozen during the supposed Snowball Earth time period (Arnaud, 2004; Arnaud and Eyles, 2004) and that the theory completely ignores a host of geological evidence regarding the true origin of the supposed Snowball Earth glacial deposits, which in further study have been interpreted as debris flow deposits (Eyles and Januszczak, 2004).


The general hypothesis has been around for several decades. Joseph Lynn Kirschvink, professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology coined the term "Snowball Earth" in 1992 although J.D. Roberts, some 20 years earlier (1971, 1976), had referred to this same interval as an "Anti-Greenhouse Earth". The hypothesis has since been reformulated and championed by Paul F. Hoffman, the Sturgis Hooper professor of geology at Harvard University, and his colleague Daniel P. Schrag. The hypothesis is not without criticism however and a number of challenges have been forwarded regarding the synchroneity of the supposed "Snowball" events.


Since the 1960s, it has been hypothesized that the Earth's continents were subjected to severe glacial action between about 750 million and 580 million years ago, so much so that the period is named the Cryogenian Period. Paleontologist W. Brian Harland pointed out that glacial till deposits of this period can be found on all continents, and first proposed that the Earth must have been in an ice age at this time; his views were widely publicized by an article in Scientific American in 1964. The problem was that the evidence-bearing deposits are found on all continents; but even during the worst of the ice age just past, no evidence of ice has been found in equatorial continents except on the higher parts of the highest mountain ranges. The then-new theory of plate tectonics made the oddly placed glacial discontinuities and deposits of glacial till even more enigmatic: studies of the magnetic orientations of the rocks of the late Proterozoic period showed that the continents were clustered around the (magnetic) equator during at least the start of the corresponding time around 750 Ma— in one of the earliest of the configurations known as supercontinents. This equatorial clustering and collision of continents about 750 Ma ago has been named Rodinia; it being near the equator, rather than near the poles as might have been expected, taken together with thermal evidence of a severe ice age 750 to 635 Ma ago (the dating suggested by the widespread geologic deposits) is what has led to the Snowball Earth hypothesis.

The Snowball Earth hypothesis argues from the documented locations of glacial till dropped by glaciers to suggest that the Earth must have completely frozen over. The mechanism by which it did so is still mysterious.

One suggestion is that, normally, as the ice spread, it covered some of the land and thus slowed the carbon dioxide absorption, increasing the greenhouse effect, and the ice spread would eventually stop; but this time the continents were clustered along the equator and thus this control mechanism would not work until the freezing process had run away and the whole Earth iced over.

Once frozen, the condition would tend to stabilize: a frozen Earth has a high albedo (reflecting more of the Sun's radiation), and a frozen Earth, with reduced evaporation, has a very dry atmosphere (water vapor being one of the greenhouse gases). A "Snowball Earth" would have a bright clear blue sky above its reflective surface.

The mechanism by which the Earth would thaw after such a frozen period would leave distinctive traces, which are the subject of ongoing research.

White Earth is a name given to a theoretical equilibrium found in computer climate simulations whereby the model Earth undergoes complete glaciation. While this seems to have originally been considered a degenerate case, by the time James Gleick wrote his history of chaos theory Chaos: Making A New Science, it was not dismissed in his book but simply restated as something that probably just had not happened yet. The current evidence for the Snowball Earth would seem to back that theory and its computer models.


Geological formations which "Snowball Earth" proponents point to as evidence of the hypothesis are iron-rich rocks like taconite deposits and carbonate cap rocks. The association of the Snowball Earth event with the Cambrian explosion (the sudden appearance of multicellular lifeforms between 570 and 530 million years ago) is also of great interest.

Lack of photosynthesizers

There are two stable isotopes of carbon in sea water: carbon-12 (C-12) and carbon-13 (C-13).

Because biochemical processes tend to preferentially incorporate the lighter C-12 isotope, there is a tendency for ocean-dwelling photosynthesizers, both protists and algae, to be very slightly depleted in the rare heavier C-13, relative to the abundance found in the primary volcanic sources of the Earth's carbon. Therefore, an ocean with photosynthetic life will have a higher C-12/C-13 ratio within organic remains, and a lower ratio in corresponding ocean water.

During the proposed period of Snowball Earth, there are variations in the concentration of C-13 that are rapid and extreme compared to normal modern variations. This is consistent with a deep freeze that killed off most or nearly all photosynthetic life in the water. The main problem with this idea is that the variations in carbon isotope ratio are inferred to be synchronous, but geochronologic confirmation of this synchroneity is lacking.

Banded iron formation (BIF)

In the Earth's oxygen rich (now nearly 21% by volume) atmosphere, iron naturally rusts, forming banded sediments known as banded iron formations.

Since non-oxidized iron-rich rock deposits can only form in the absence of that ubiquitous atmospheric oxygen, and since these subject deposits are seen at the supposed time of the worst glaciations, presence of non-oxidized iron deposits laid down in the Cryogenian period lends strength to the Snowball Earth theory.

The total amount of oxygen locked up in the banded iron beds is estimated to be perhaps 20 times the volume of oxygen present in the modern atmosphere, and virtually all of it results from iron dissolved in water then subjected to oxygen, which precipitates out of the solution. Banded iron beds significantly are considered to be Precambrian sedimentary rocks and are rare in Phanerozoic strata.

Proponents of the theory point out that oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere is not naturally stable, and must receive continuous maintenance (replenishment) from the biosphere as it is constantly leached out of the atmosphere in a wide variety of chemical reactions, particularly those involving iron and silicon.

Carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas, and the biggest remover of it from the atmosphere is atmospheric weathering wherein silicate rocks are broken down into sand and dust which are blown or washed away, exposing new rock surface to further attack by water or the atmosphere; much of their component calcium and magnesium dissolves out and combines with CO2 to form dissolved bicarbonates. The speed of this process can be seen by observing the dates on older eroded headstones in a cemetery. In a Snowball Earth, essentially all rock would eventually become locked up and covered by ice and snow leading to a long-term gradual steady carbon dioxide buildup.

Survival of life through the frozen periods

A tremendous glaciation would curtail plant life on Earth, thus letting the atmospheric oxygen be drastically depleted and perhaps even disappear, and thus allow (non-oxidized) iron-rich rocks to form. Detractors argue that this kind of glaciation would have made life extinct entirely, which did not happen. Proponents counter that it may have been possible for life to survive in these ways:-

  • Reservoirs of anaerobic and low-oxygen life powered by chemicals in deep oceanic hydrothermal vents surviving in Earth's deep oceans and crust; but photosynthesis would not have been possible there.
  • Deep ocean regions far from the supercontinent Rodinia or its remnants as it broke apart and drifted on the tectonic plates may have allowed for some small regions of open water preserving small quantities of life with access to light and CO2 for plants to use during photosynthesis generating traces of oxygen enough to sustain some oxygen-dependent organisms. This would still happen even if the sea froze over completely provided that the small portions of the ice were thin enough to admit light.
  • In nunatak areas in the tropics where daytime tropical sun, or volcanic heat, heated bare rock and made small temporary melt pools which would freeze over at sunset.
  • As eggs and dormant cells and spores deep-frozen into ice right through the frozen period.
  • Under the ice layer, in chemolithotrophic (mineral-metabolizing) ecosystems theoretically resembling those in existence in modern glacier beds, high-alpine and arctic talus permafrost, and basal glacial ice. This is especially plausible in areas of volcanism or geothermal activity.
  • In pockets of liquid water within and under the ice caps, similar to Lake Vostok in Antarctica. In theory, this system may resemble microbial communities living in the perennially frozen lakes of the Antarctic dry valleys.

Carbonate cap rocks; how the Earth thawed

The carbon dioxide levels necessary to unfreeze the Earth have been estimated as being 350 times what they are today, but would be able to accumulate due to the opposite of the effect mentioned earlier as a possible mechanism triggering the freeze in the first place; if the Earth was completely covered with ice, silicate rocks would not be exposed during erosion, and carbon dioxide would not then be removed from the atmosphere. Eventually enough CO2 emitted by volcanoes would accumulate, perhaps after an era of increased volcanic activity (a prodigious producer of this greenhouse gas), that the oceans around the equator would finally melt, which would produce a band of open ice-free water, much darker than the highly reflective ice, which would absorb more energy from the sun. This would in turn heat the Earth more, melting more water to absorb more light, and so on. Concurrently, the abundance of CO2 would provide plenty of food to feed a cyanobacterial population explosion, resulting in a relatively rapid reoxygenation of the atmosphere to feed the following Cambrian Explosion with the new multicellular lifeforms. This positive feedback loop would melt the ice in geological short order, perhaps less than 1000 years; replenishment of atmospheric oxygen and depletion of the CO2 levels would take more thousands of years.

However, the carbon dioxide levels would still be two orders of magnitude higher than usual. Rain would wash CO2 out of the atmosphere as a weak solution of carbonic acid, which would turn exposed silicate rock to carbonate rock, which would then erode easily, wash into the ocean, and form deep layers of carbonate sedimentary rock. Thick layers of exactly this abiotic carbonate sediment can be found on top of the glacial till that first suggested the Snowball Earth.

Eventually the carbon dioxide level would get so low that the Earth would freeze over again. This cycle went on until Rodinia had dispersed so much that the Earth's land was no longer strung out along the equator and the primary cause of Snowball Earth would no longer operate.

Evolution of life

The Neoproterozoic was a time of remarkable diversification of multicellar biota, especially animals. Animal size and complexity increased considerably with time, sufficiently so that soft-bodied fossils allowed the Ediacaran Period to be distinguished by the IUGS (International Union of Geological Sciences). This development of multicellular animals may have been the result of increased evolutionary pressures resulting from multiple icehouse-hothouse cycles; in this sense, Snowball Earth episodes may have "pumped" evolution. Some proponents of the Snowball Earth theory also point out that the last important glacial episode may have ended only a few million years before the beginning of the Cambrian Explosion.

Other Snowball Earths

Another Snowball Earth has also been proposed for the first known ice age, 2.3 billion years ago. There the proposed mechanism is the first appearance of atmospheric oxygen, which would have absorbed any methane in the air. As methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and as the Sun was notably weaker at the time, temperatures plunged. The evidence here is weaker, but a layer of iron-rich rock can also be found from this time.

One competing theory to explain the presence of ice on the equatorial continents was that the Earth's axial tilt was quite high, in the vicinity of 60°, which would place the Earth's land in high "latitudes". An even less severe possibility would be that it was merely the Earth's magnetic pole that wandered to this inclination, as the magnetic readings which suggested ice-filled continents depends on the magnetic and rotational poles being relatively similar (there is some evidence to believe that this is the case). In either of these two situations, the freeze over would be limited to relatively small areas, as is the case today, and severe changes to the Earth's climate are not necessary.

Alternatively, the glacial evidence for Snowball Earth may be reinterpreted by the concept of inertial interchange true polar wander (IITPW). This was proposed by Kirschvink and others of Caltech in July 1997 and holds that the contintental land masses may have moved far more quickly than has previously been supposed under the influence of physical laws affecting the distribution of mass for the planet as a whole. If the continents move too far from the equator, the entire lithosphere may slide to bring them back to the equator at speeds hundreds of times that of ordinary tectonic plate movements. This has the effect of making it look like the magnetic north pole has wandered when in fact the continents have re-aligned in respect to it. This idea has been challenged by Torsvik et al. (1998), Meert (1999) and Torsvik and Rehnstrom (2001) showed that the amount of polar wander proposed by Kirschvink et al. (1997) was insufficient to support the hypothesis. Thus, while the physical mechanism of IITPW is geophysically sound, the idea that an event occurred in the Cambrian is without merit.

If such rapid movement did take place it would account for the existence of such features of glaciation in close temporal proximity to the presence of the continents near the equator. Inertial Interchange true polar wander has also been linked to the Cambrian Explosion of evolutionary forms as animals were forced to evolve to adapt to rapidly changing habitats and environments. The problem with linking IITPW to the Cambrian explosion is that newer data no longer support such rapid motion during the Cambrian.

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