Kicking-off planetary Snowball conditions

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)

Finding Archaean atmospheric composition using micrometeorites

Modern micrometeorites (about 20 μm in diameter) from deep-sea sediments, with shiny magnetite-rich veneers (Credit: D. E. Brownlee)

The gases making up the Earth’s atmosphere and their relative proportions before 2.5 billion years (Ga) ago are known with very little certainty. Carbonate rocks are rare, indicating that the oceans were more acidic, which implies that they had dissolved more CO2 from the atmosphere, which, in turn implies that there was much more of that gas than in present air. There are few signs of widespread glaciogenic sediments of Archaean age, at a time when the Sun’s energy output is estimated to have been at 70 to 75% of its present level. Without an enhanced greenhouse effect oceans would have been frozen over; so that supports high CO2 concentrations too. The fact that water worn grains of minerals such as uraninite (UO2) and pyrite (FeS2), which are stable only in reducing conditions, occur in Archaean conglomerates is a good indicator that there were only vanishingly small amounts of oxygen in the air. That was not to change until marine photosynthesisers produced enough to overcome the general reducing conditions at the Earth’s surface, marked by the Great Oxidation Event at around 2.4 Ga (see: Massive event in the Precambrian carbon cycle; Earth-logs, January 2012. Search for more articles in sidebar at Earth-logs home page). It was then that ancient soils (palaeosols) became the now familiar red colour because of their content of ferric iron oxides and hydroxides The problem is that reliable numbers cannot be attached to these kinds of observation. A common means of estimating CO2 levels comes from the way in which the gas reacts with silicates as soils form at the land surface, estimated from carbon isotopes in soil carbonate nodules. Since the rise of land plants around 400 Ma ago the distribution of pores (stomata) in fossil leaves provides a more precise estimate: the more CO2 in air the less densely packed are leaf stomata. For the Precambrian we are stuck with estimates based on chemical reactions of minerals with the atmosphere. Until recently, one reaction that must always have been extremely common was overlooked.

When meteorite pass through the atmosphere at very high speed friction heats them to incandescence. Their surfaces not only melt but the minerals from which they are composed react very strongly with air. The reaction products should therefore provide chemical clues to the relative proportions of atmospheric gases. Both oxygen and carbon dioxide are reactive at such temperatures, although nitrogen is virtually inert, yet it tends to buffer oxidation reactions. The rest of the atmosphere comprises noble gases – mainly argon – and by definition they are completely unreactive. Pure-iron micrometeorites collected from 2.7 Ga old sediments in the Pilbara Province of Western Australia are veneered with magnetite (Fe3O4) and wüstite (FeO), thus preserving a record of their passage through the Neoarchaean atmosphere. If the oxidant had been oxygen, for these minerals to form from elemental iron suggests oxygen levels around those prevailing today: clearly defying the abundant evidence for its near-absence during the Archaean. Carbon dioxide is the only candidate. Two studies have produced similar results (Lehmer, O. R. et al. 2020. Atmospheric CO2 levels from 2.7 billion years ago inferred from micrometeorite oxidationScience Advances, v. 6, article aay4644;  DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay4644 and Payne, R.C. et al. 2020. Oxidized micrometeorites suggest either high pCO2 or low pN2 during the Neoarchean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117 1360 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1910698117). Both use complex modelling of the chemical effects of meteorite entry. Lehmer and colleagues estimated that the Neoarchaean atmosphere contained about 64% CO2, with a surface atmospheric pressure about half that at present. This would be sufficient for a surface temperature of about 30°C achieved by the greenhouse effect, taking into account lower solar heating. The team led by Payne concluded a lower concentration (25 to 50%) and a somewhat cooler planet at that time. Both results suggest ocean water considerably more acid than are today’s. The combined warmth and acidity would have had a fundamental bearing on both the origin, survival and evolution of early life.

See also: Carroll, M. 2020. Meteorites reveal high carbon dioxide levels on early Earth; Yirka, R. Computer model shows ancient Earth with an atmosphere 70 percent carbon dioxide. (both from