Kicking-off planetary Snowball conditions

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

Twice in the Cryogenian Period of the Neoproterozoic, glacial- and sea ice extended from both poles to the Equator, giving ‘Snowball Earth’ conditions. Notable glacial climates in the Phanerozoic – Ordovician, Carboniferous-Permian and Pleistocene – were long-lived but restricted to areas around the poles, so do not qualify as Snowball Earth conditions. It is possible, but less certain, that Snowball Earth conditions also prevailed during the Palaeoproterozoic at around 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago. This earlier episode roughly coincided with the ‘Great Oxidation Event’, and one explanation for it is that the rise of atmospheric oxygen removed methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, by oxidizing it to CO2 and water. That may well have been a consequence of the evolution of the cyanobacteria, their photosynthesis releasing oxygen to the atmosphere. The Neoproterozoic ‘big freezes’ are associated with rapid changes in the biosphere, most importantly with the rise of metazoan life in the form of the Ediacaran fauna, the precursor to the explosion in animal diversity during the Cambrian. Indeed all major global coolings, restricted as well as global, find echoes in the course of biological evolution. Another interwoven factor is the rock cycle, particularly volcanism and the varying pace of chemical weathering. The first releases CO2 from the mantle, the second helps draw it down from the atmosphere when weak carbonic acid in rainwater rots silicate minerals (see: Can rock weathering halt global warming, July 2020). All such interplays between major and sometimes minor ‘actors’ in the Earth system influence climate and, in turn, climate inevitably affects all the rest. With such complexity it is hardly surprising that there is a plethora of theories about past climate shifts.

As well as a link with fluctuations in the greenhouse effect, climate is influenced by changes in the amount of solar heating, for which there are yet more options to consider. For instance, the increase in Earth’s albedo (reflectivity) that results from ice cover, may lead through a feedback effect to runaway cooling, particularly once ice extends beyond the poorly illuminated poles. Volcanic dust and sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere also increase albedo and the tendency to cooling, as would interplanetary dust. More complexity to befuddle would-be modellers of ancient climates. Yet it is safe to say that, within the maelstrom of contributory factors, the freeze-overs of Snowball conditions must have resulted from our planet passing through some kind of threshold in the Earth System. Two theoretical scientists from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have attempted to cut through the log-jam by modelling the dynamics of the interplay between the ice-albedo feedback and the carbon-silicate cycle of weathering (Arnscheidt, C.W. & Rothman, D.H. 2020. Routes to global glaciation. Proceedings of the Royal Society A, v. 476, article 0303 online; DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2020.0303). Their mathematical approach involves two relatively simple, if long-winded, equations based on parameters that express solar heating, albedo, surface temperature and pressure, and the rate of volcanic outgassing of CO2; a simplification that sets biological processes to one side.

Unlike previous models, theirs can simulate varying rates, particularly of changes in solar energy input. The key conclusion of the paper is that if solar heating decreases faster than a threshold rate the more a planet’s surface water is likely to freeze from pole to pole. The authors suggest that a Snowball Earth event would result from a 2% fall in received solar radiation over about ten thousand years: pretty quick in a geological sense. Such a trigger might stem from a volcanic ‘winter’ scenario, an increase in clouds seeded by spores of primitive marine algae or other factors. The real ‘tipping point’ would probably be the high albedo of ice. There is a warning in this for the present, when a variety of means of decreasing solar input have been proposed as a ‘solution’ to global warming.

Because the Earth orbits the Sun in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ and is volcanically active even global glaciation would be temporary, albeit of the order of millions of years. The cold would have shut down weathering so that volcanic CO2 could slowly build up in the atmosphere: the greenhouse effect would rescue the planet. Further from the Sun, a planet would not have that escape route, regardless of its atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases: a neat lead-in to another recent paper about the ancient climate of Mars (Grau Galofre, A. et al. 2020. Valley formation on early Mars by subglacial and fluvial erosion. Nature Geoscience, early online article; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-0618-x)

A Martian channel system: note later cratering (credit: European Space Agency)

There is a lot of evidence from both high-resolution orbital images of the Martian surface and surface ‘rovers’ that surface water was abundant over a long period in Mars’s early history. The most convincing are networks of channels, mainly in the southern hemisphere highlands. They are not the vast channelled scablands, such as those associated with Valles Marineris, which probably resulted from stupendous outburst floods connected to catastrophic melting of subsurface ice by some means. There are hundreds of channel networks, that resemble counterparts on Earth. Since rainfall and melting of ice and snow have carved most terrestrial channel networks, traditionally those on Mars have been attributed to similar processes during an early warm and wet phase. The warm-early Mars hypothesis extends even to interpreting the smooth low-lying plains of its northern hemisphere – about a third of Mars’s surface area – as the site of an ocean in those ancient times. Of course, a big question is, ‘Where did all that water go?’ Another relates to the fact that the early Sun emitted considerably less radiation 4.5 billion years ago than it does now: a warm-wet early Mars is counterintuitive.

Anna Grau Galofre of the University of British Columbia and co-authors found that many of the networks on Mars clearly differ in morphology from one another, even in small areas of its surface. Drainage networks on Earth conform to far fewer morphological types. By comparing the variability on Mars with channel-network shapes on Earth, the authors found a close match for many with those that formed beneath the ice sheet that covered high latitudes of North America during the last glaciation. Some match drainage patterns typical of surface-water erosion, but both types are present in low Martian latitudes: a suggestion of ‘Snowball Mars’ conditions? The authors reached their conclusions by analysing six mathematical measures that describe channel morphology for over ten thousand individual valley systems. Previous analyses of individual systems discovered on high-resolution images have qualitative comparisons with terrestrial geomorphology

See also: Chu, J. 2020. “Snowball Earths” May Have Been Triggered by a Plunge in Incoming Sunlight – “Be Wary of Speed” (SciTech Daily 29 July 2020); Early Mars was covered in ice sheets, not flowing rivers, researchers say (Science Daily, 3 August 2020)

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