Ordovician ice age: an extraterrestrial trigger

The Ordovician Period is notable for three global events; an explosion in biological diversity; an ice age, and a mass extinction. The first, colloquially known as the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, occurred in the Middle Ordovician around 470 Ma ago (see The Great Ordovician Diversification, September 2008) when the number of recorded fossil families tripled. In the case of brachiopods, this seems to have happened in no more than a few hundred thousand years. The glacial episode spanned the period from 460 to 440 Ma and left tillites in South America, Arabia and, most extensively, in Africa. Palaeogeographic reconstructions centre a Gondwanan ice cap in the Western Sahara, close to the Ordovician South Pole. It was not a Snowball Earth event, but covered a far larger area than did the maximum extent the Pleistocene ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the only case of severe global cooling bracketing one or the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions of the Phanerozoic Eon. In fact two mass extinctions during the Late Ordovician rudely interrupted the evolutionary promise of the earlier threefold diversification, by each snuffing-out almost 30% of known genera.

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L-chondrite meteorite in iron-stained Ordovician limestone together with a nautiloid (credit: Birger Schmitz)

A lesser-known feature of the Ordovician Period is a curious superabundance of extraterrestrial debris, including high helium-3, chromium and iridium concentrations, preserved in sedimentary rocks, particularly those exposed around the Baltic Sea (Schmitz, B. and 19 others 2019. An extraterrestrial trigger for the mid-Ordovician ice age: Dust from the breakup of the L-chondrite parent body. Science Advances, v. 5(9), eaax4184; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax4184). Yet there is not a sign of any major impact of that general age, and the meteoritic anomaly occupies a 5 m thick sequence at the best studied site in Sweden, representing about 2 Ma of deposition, rather than the few centimetres at near-instantaneous impact horizons such as the K-Pg boundary. Intact meteorites are almost exclusively L-chondrites dated at around 466 Ma. Schmitz and colleagues reckon that the debris represents the smashing of a 150 km-wide asteroid in orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Interestingly, L-chondrites are more abundant today and in post-Ordovician sediments than they were in pre-Ordovician records, amounting to about a third of all finds. This suggests that the debris is still settling out in the Inner Solar System hundreds of million years later. Not long after the asteroid was smashed a dense debris cloud would have entered the Inner Solar System, much of it in the form of dust.

The nub of Schmitz et al’s hypothesis is that considerably less solar radiation fell on Earth after the event, resulting in a sort of protracted ‘nuclear winter’ that drove the Earth into much colder conditions. Meteoritic iron falling the ocean would also have caused massive phytoplankton blooms that sequestered CO2 from the Ordovician atmosphere to reduce the greenhouse effect. Yet the cooling seems not to have immediately decimated the ‘booming’ faunas of the Middle Ordovician. Perhaps the disruption cleared out some ecological niches, for new species to occupy, which may explain sudden boosts in diversity among groups such as brachiopods. Two sharp jumps in brachiopod species numbers are preceded and accompanied by ‘spikes’ in the number of extraterrestrial chromite grains in one Middle Ordovician sequence. One possibility, suggested in an earlier paper (Schmitz, B. and 8 others 2008. Asteroid breakup linked to the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. Nature Geoscience, v. 1, p. 49-53; DOI: 10.1038/ngeo.2007.37)  is that the undoubted disturbance may have killed off species of one group, maybe trilobites, so that the resources used by them became available to more sturdy groups, whose speciation filled the newly available niches. Such a scenario would make sense, as mobile predators/scavengers (e.g. trilobites) may have been less able to survive disruption, thereby favouring the rise of less metabolically energetic filter feeders (e.g. brachiopods).

See also: Sokol, J. 2019. Dust from asteroid breakup veiled and cooled Earth. Science, v. 365, pp. 1230: DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6459.1230, How the first metazoan mass extinction happened (Earth-logs, May 2014)

Ediacaran glaciated surface in China

It is easy to think that firm evidence for past glaciations lies in sedimentary strata that contain an unusually wide range of grain size, a jumble of different rock types – including some from far-off outcrops – and a dominance of angular fragments: similar to the boulder clay or till on which modern glaciers sit. In fact such evidence, in the absence of other signs, could have formed by a variety of other means. To main a semblance of hesitancy, rocks of that kind are now generally referred to as diamictites in the absence of other evidence that ice masses were involved in their deposition. Among the best is the discovery that diamictites rest on a surface that has been scored by the passage of rock-armoured ice – a striated pavement and, best of all, that the diamictites contain fragments that bear flat surfaces that are also scratched. The Carboniferous to Permian glaciation of the southern continents and India that helped Alfred Wegener to reconstruct the Pangaea supercontinent was proved by the abundant presence of striated pavements. Indeed, it was the striations themselves that helped clinch his revolutionising concept. On the reconstruction they formed a clear radiating pattern away from what was later to be shown by palaeomagnetic data to be the South Pole of those times.

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29 Ma old striated pavement beneath the Dwyka Tillite in South Africa (credit: M.J Hambrey)

The multiple glacial epochs of the Precambrian that extended to the Equator during Snowball Earth conditions were identified from diamictites that are globally, roughly coeval, along with other evidence for frigid climates. Some of them contain dropstones that puncture the bedding as a result of having fallen through water, which reinforces a glacial origin. However, Archaean and Neoproterozoic striated pavements are almost vanishingly rare. Most of those that have been found are on a scale of only a few square metres. Diamictites have been reported from the latest Neoproterozoic Ediacaran Period, but are thin and not found in all sequences of that age. They are thought to indicate sudden climate changes linked to the hesitant rise of animal life in the run-up to the Cambrian Explosion. One occurrence, for which palaeomagnetic date suggest tropical latitude, is near Pingdingshan in central China above a local unconformity that is exposed on a series of small plateaus (Le Heron, D.P. and 9 others 2019. Bird’s-eye view of an Ediacaran subglacial landscape. Geology, v. 47, p. 705-709; DOI: 10.1130/G46285.1). To get a synoptic view the authors deployed a camera-carrying drone. The images show an irregular surface rather than one that is flat. It is littered with striations and other sub-glacial structures, such as faceting and fluting, together with other features that indicate plastic deformation of the underling sandstone. The structures suggest basal ice abrasion in the presence of subglacial melt water, beneath a southward flowing ice sheet

How the first metazoan mass extinction happened

The end-Ordovician mass extinction was the first of five during the Phanerozoic, andthe first that involved multicelled organisms. It happened in two distinct phases that roughly coincided with an intense but short-lived glaciation at the South Pole, then situated within what is now the African continent. Unlike the other four, this biotic catastrophe seems unlinked to either a major impact structure or to an episode of flood volcanism.

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Artist’s impression of an Ordovician shallow-sea community (credit: drtel)

In 2009 Earth Pages reported the curious occurrence in 470 Ma (Darriwilian Stage) Swedish limestones of a large number of altered chondritic meteorites, possible evidence that there may have been an extraterrestrial influence on extinction rates around that time. In support is evidence that the meteorite swarm coincided with megabreccias or olistostromes at what were then Southern Hemisphere continental margins: possible signs of a series of huge tsunamis. But in fact this odd coincidence occurred at a time when metazoan diversity was truly booming: the only known case of impacts possibly favouring life.

Number One of the Big Five mass extinctions occurred during the late-Ordovician Hirnantian stage (443-445 Ma) and has received much less attention than the later ones. So it is good see the balance being redressed by a review of evidence for it and for possible mechanisms (Harper, D.A.T et al. 2014. End Ordovician extinctions: A coincidence of causes. Gondwana Research, v. 25, p. 1294-1307). The first event of a double-whammy mainly affected free-swimming and planktonic organisms and those of shallow seas; near-surface dwellers such as graptolites and trilobites. The second, about a million years later, hit animals living at all depths in the sea. Between them, the two events removed about 85% of marines species – there were few if any terrestrial animals so this is close to the extinction level that closed the Palaeozoic at around 250 Ma.

No single process can be regarded as the ‘culprit’. However the two events are bracketed by an 80-100 m fall in sea level due to the southern hemisphere glaciation. That may have given rise to changes in ocean oxygen content and in the reduction of sulfur to hydrogen sulfide. Also climate-related may have been changes in the vertical, thermohaline circulation of the oceans, falling temperatures encouraging sinking of surface water to abyssal depths providing more oxygen to support life deep in the water column. Sea-level fall would have reduced the extent of shallow seas too. Those consequences would explain the early demise of shallow water, free swimming animals. Reversal of these trends as glaciation waned may have returned stagnancy and anoxia to deep water, thereby affecting life at all depths. The authors suggest generalized ‘tipping points’ towards which several global processes contributed.

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Earth’s first major glacial epochs

The global glaciations of the Neoproterozoic that reached low latitudes – the so-called ‘Snowball Earth’ events have dominated accounts of ancient glaciations since the start of the 21st century. Yet they are not the oldest examples of large-scale effects of continental ice sheets. Distinctive tillites or diamictites that contain large clasts of diverse, exotic rocks occur in sedimentary sequences of Archaean and Palaeoproterozoic age.

Diamictite from the Palaoproterozoic Gowganda Formation in Ontario Canada (credit: Candian Sedimentology Research Group)
Diamictite from the Palaeoproterozoic Gowganda Formation in Ontario Canada (credit: Canadian Sedimentology Research Group)

This item can be read in full at Earth-logs in the Palaeoclimatology archive for 2013

Climate change and global volcanism

Geologists realized long ago that volcanic activity can have a profound effect on local and global climate. For instance, individual large explosive eruptions can punch large amounts of ash and sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere where they act to reflect solar radiation back to space, thereby cooling the planet. The 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines ejected 17 million tones of SO2; so much that the amount of sunlight reaching the Northern Hemisphere fell by around 10% and mean global temperature fell by almost 0.5 °C over the next 2 years. On the other hand, increased volcanic emissions of CO2 over geologically long periods of time are thought to explain some episodes of greenhouse conditions in the geological past.

Ash plume of Pinatubo during 1991 eruption.
Ash plume of Mount Pinatubo during its 1991 eruption. (credit: Wikipedia)

The converse effect of climate change on volcanism has, however, only been hinted at. One means of investigating a possible link is through the records of volcanic ash in sea-floor sediment cores in relation to cyclical climate change during the last million years. Data relating to the varying frequency volcanic activity in the circum Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ has been analysed by German and US geoscientists (Kutterolf, S. et al. 2013. A detection of Milankovich frequencies in global volcanic activity. Geology, v. 41, p. 227-230) to reveal a link with the 41 ka periodicity of astronomical climate forcing due to changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation. This matches well with the frequency spectrum displayed by changes in oxygen isotopes from marine cores that record the waxing and waning of continental ice sheets and consequent falls and rises in sea level. Yet there is no sign of links to the orbital eccentricity (~400 and ~100 ka) and axial precession (~22 ka) components of Milankovitch climatic forcing. An interesting detail is that the peak of volcanism lags that of tilt-modulated insolation by about 4 ka.

At first sight an odd coincidence, but both glaciation and changing sea levels involve shifting the way in which the lithosphere is loaded from above. With magnitudes of the orders of kilometres and hundreds of metres respectively glacial and eustatic changes would certainly affect the gravitational field. In turn, changes in the field and the load would result in stress changes below the surface that conceivably might encourage subvolcanic chambers to expel or accumulate magma. Kutterolf and colleagues model the stress from combined glacial and marine loading and unloading for a variety of volcanic provinces in the ‘Ring of Fire’ and are able to show nicely how the frequency of actual eruptions fits changing rates of deep-crustal stress from their model. Eruptions bunch together when stress changes rapidly, as in the onset of the last glacial maximum and deglaciations, and also during stadial-interstadial phases.

Whether or not there may be a link between climate change and plate tectonics, and therefore seismicity, is probably unlikely to be resolved simply because records do not exist for earthquakes before the historic period. As far as I can tell, establishing a link is possible only for volcanism close to coast lines, i.e. in island arcs and continental margins, and related to subduction processes, because the relative changes in stress during rapid marine transgressions and recessions would be large.. Deep within continents there may have been effects on volcanism related to local and regional ice-sheet loading. In the ocean basins, however, there remains a possibility of influences on the activity of ocean-island volcanoes, though whether or not that can be detected is unclear. Some, like Kilauea in Hawaii and La Palma in the Canary Islands, are prone to flank collapse and consequent tsunamis that could be influenced by much the same process. Another candidate for a climate-linked, potentially catastrophic process is that of destabilisation of marine sediments on the continental edge, as in the Storegga Slide off Norway whose last collapse and associated tsunami around 8 thousand years ago took place during the last major rise in sea level during deglaciation. The climatic stability of the Holocene probably damps down any rise in geo-risk with a link to rapid climate change, which anthropogenic changes are likely to be on a scale dwarfed by those during ice ages.