Signs of Milankovich Effect during Snowball Earth episodes

The idea that the Earth was like a giant snowball during the Neoproterozoic Era arose from the discovery of rocks of that age that could only have formed as a result of glaciation. However, unlike the Pleistocene ice ages, evidence for these much older glacial conditions occurs on all continents. In some locations remanent magnetism in sedimentary rocks of that age is almost horizontal; i.e. they had been deposited at low magnetic latitudes, equivalent to the tropics of the present day. Frigid as it then was, the Earth still received solar heating and magmatic activity would have been slowly adding CO2 to the atmosphere so that less heat escaped – a greenhouse effect must have been functioning. Moreover, an iced-over world would not have been supporting much photosynthetic life to draw down the greenhouse gas into solid carbohydrates and carbonates to be buried on the ocean floor. As far as we know the Solar System’s geometry during the Neoproterozoic was much as it is today. So changes in the gravitational fields induced by the orbiting Giant Planets would have been affecting the shape (eccentricity) of Earth’s orbit, the tilt (obliquity) of its rotational axis and the precession (wobble) of its rotation as they do at present through the Milankovich effect. These astronomical forcings vary the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface. It has been suggested that a Snowball Earth’s climate system would have been just as sensitive to astronomical forcing as it has been during the last 2 million years or more. Proof of that hypothesis has recently been achieved, at least for one of the Snowball events (Mitchell, R.N. and 8 others 2021. Orbital forcing of ice sheets during snowball Earth. Nature Communications, v. 12, article 4187; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-24439-4).

Another of the enigmas of the Neoproterozoic is that after and absence of more than a billion years banded iron formations (see: Banded iron formations (BIFs) reviewed, December 2017) began to form again. BIFs are part of the suite of sedimentary rocks that characterise Snowball Earth events, often alternating with glaciogenic sediments. Throughout each cold cycle – the Sturtian (717 to 663 Ma) and Marinoan (650 to 632 Ma) glacial periods – conditions of sediment deposition varied a great deal from place to place and over time. Some sort of cyclicity is hinted at, but the pace of alternations has proved impossible to check, partly because the dominant rocks (glacial conglomerates or diamictites) show little stratification and others that are bedded (various non-glacial sandstones) vary from place to place and give no sign of rates of deposition, having been deposited under high-energy conditions. BIFs, on the other hand are made up of enormous numbers of parallel layers on scales from millimetres to centimetres. Bundles of bands can be traced over large areas, and they may represent repeated cycles of deposition.

Typical banded iron formation

How BIFs formed is crucial. They were precipitated from water rich in dissolved iron in its reduced Fe2+ (ferrous) form, which originated from sea-floor hydrothermal vents. Precipitation occurred when the amount of oxygen in the water increased the chance of electrons being removed from iron ions to transform them from ferrous to ferric (Fe3+). Their combination with oxygen yields insoluble iron oxides. Cyclical changes in the availability of oxygen and the balance between reducing and oxidising conditions result in the banding. In fact several rhythms of alternation are witnessed by repeated packages at deci-, centi- and millimetre scales within each BIF deposit. Overall the packages suggest a constant rate of deposition: a ‘must-have’ for precise time-analysis of the cycles. BIFs contain both weakly magnetic hematite (Fe2O3) and strongly magnetic magnetite (Fe3O4), their ratio depending on varying geochemical conditions during deposition. Ross Mitchell of Curtin University, Western Australia and his Chinese, Australian and Dutch colleagues measured magnetic susceptibility at closely spaced intervals (1 and 0.25 m) in two section of BIFs from the Sturtian glaciation in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. Visually both sections show clear signs of two high-frequency and three lower frequency kinds of cycles, expressed in thickness.

The tricky step was converting the magneto-stratigraphic data to a time series. High-precision zircon U-Pb dating of volcanic rocks in the sequence suggested a mean BIF deposition rate of 3.7 to 4.4 cm per thousand years. This allowed the thickness of individual bands and packages to be expressed in years, the prerequisite for time-series analysis of the BIF magneto-stratigraphic sequence. This involves a mathematical process known as the Fast-Fourier Transform, which expresses the actual data as a spectral curve. Peaks in the curve represent specific frequencies expressed as cycles per metre. The rate of deposition of the BIF allows each peak to be assigned a frequency in years, which can then be compared with the hypothetical spectrum associated with the Milankovich effect. One of the BIF sequences yielded peaks corresponding to 23, 97 and 106 ka. These match the effects of variation in precession (23 ka) and ‘short’ orbital eccentricity (97 and 106 ka) found in Cenozoic sea-floor sediments and ice cores. The other showed peaks at 405, 754 and 1.2 Ma corresponding to ‘long’ orbital eccentricity and long-term features of both obliquity and precession. Quite a result! But how does this bear on Snowball Earth events? Cyclical changes in solar heating would have affected the extent of ice sheets and sea ice at all latitudes, forcing episodes of expansion and contraction and thus changes in sediment supply to the sea floor. That helps explain the many observed variations in sedimentation other than that of BIFs. Rather than supporting a ‘hard’ Snowball model of total marine ice cover for millions of years, it suggests that such an extreme was relieved by period of extensive open water, much as affected the modern Arctic Ocean for the last 2 million years or so. There could have been global equivalents of ice ages and interglacials during the Sturtian and Marinoan. ‘Hard’ conditions would have shut down much of the oceans’ biological productivity, periodically to have been reprieved by more open conditions: a mechanism that would have promoted both extinctions and evolutionary radiations. Snowball events may have driven the takeover of prokaryote (bacteria) dominance by that of the multicelled eukaryotes that is signalled by the Ediacaran faunas that swiftly followed glacial epochs and the explosion of multicelled life during the Cambrian. As eukaryotes, we may well owe our existence to Snowball.

Very persistent cycles

Carboniferous shale
Carboniferous shale (Photo credit: tehsma)

The last of five written papers in my 1967 final-year exams was, as always, set by the ‘Prof’.  One question was ‘Rock and rhythm: discuss’ – it was the 60s. Cyclicity has been central to observational geology, especially to stratigraphy, the difference from that era being that rhythms have been quantified and the rock sequences they repeat have been linked to processes, in many cases global ones. The most familiar cyclicity to geologists brought up in Carboniferous coalfields, or indeed any area that preserves Carboniferous marine and terrestrial rocks, is the cyclothem of, roughly, seat-earth – coal – marine shale – fluviatile sandstone – seat-earth and so on. Matched to the duration of Carboniferous to Permian glaciations of the then southern hemisphere, and with the relatively  new realisation that global sea level goes down  and up as ice caps wax and wane, the likeliest explanation is eustatic regression and transgression of marine conditions in coastal areas in response to global climate change. Statistical analysis of cyclothemic sequences unearths frequency patterns that match well those of astronomical climate forcing proved for Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles.

The Milankovich signals of the Carboniferous are now part of the geological canon, but rocks of that age more finely layered than sediments of the tropical continental margins do occur. Among them are rhythmic sequences interpreted as lake deposits from high latitudes, akin to varves formed in such environments nowadays. Those from south-western Brazil present spectacular evidence of climate change in the Late Carboniferous and Early Permian (Franco, D.R. et al. 2012. Millennial-scale climate cycles in Permian-Carboniferous rhythmites: Permanent feature throughout geological time. Geology, v. 40, p. 19-22). They comprise couplets of fine-grained grey quartz sandstones from 1-10 cm thick interleaved with black mudstones on a scale of millimetres, which together build up around 45 m of sediment. Their remanent magnetism and magnetic susceptibility vary systematically with the two components. Frequency analysis of plots of both against depth in the sequence show clear signs of regular repetitions. Low-frequency peaks reveal the now well-known influence of astronomical forcing of Upper Palaeozoic climate, but it is in the lower amplitude, higher frequency part of the magnetic spectrum that surprises emerge from a variety of peaks. They are reminiscent of the Dansgaard-Oeschger events of the last Pleistocene glacial, marked by sudden warming and slow cooling while world climate cooled towards the last glacial maximum (~1.5 ka cyclicity) and Heinrich events, the ‘iceberg armadas’ that occurred on a less regular 3 to 8 ka basis. There are also signs of the 2.4 ka solar cycle. The relatively brief cycles would have been due to events in a very different continental configuration from today’s – that of the supercontinent Pangaea – and their very presence suggests a more general global influence over short-term climate shifts that has been around for 300 Ma or more.

OSTM/Jason-2's predecessor TOPEX/Poseidon caug...
El Niño effect on sea -surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Image via Wikipedia

Closer to us in time, and on a much finer time scale are almost 100 m of finely laminated shales from the marine Late Cretaceous of California’s Great Valley (Davies, A. et al. 2012. El Niño-Southern Oscillation variability from the late Cretaceous Marca Shale of California. Geology, v. 40, p. 15-18). The laminations contain fossil diatoms: organisms that are highly sensitive to environmental conditions and whose species are easily distinguished from each other. It emerges from studies of the diatoms in each lamination set that they record an annual cycle of seasonal change related to marine upwellings and their varying strengths, with repeated evidence for influx of fine sediment derived from land above sea level and for varying degrees of bioturbation that suggests periods of oxygenation. Spectral analysis of the intensity of bioturbation, which assumes the lamina are annual, and other fluctuating features reveals peaks that are remarkably close to those of the ENSO cyclicity that operates at present, at 2.1-2.8 and 4.1-6.3 a, as well as repetitions with a decadal frequency.

The annual cycles bear similar hallmarks to those imposed by the monsoonal conditions familiar from modern California, which fluctuated in the Late Cretaceous in much the same way as it does now – roughly speaking, alternating El Niño and La Niña conditions. That is not so surprising, as the relationship between California and the Pacific Ocean in the Cretaceous would not have been dissimilar from that now. The real importance of the study is that it concerns a period in Earth’s climate history characterised by greenhouse conditions, that some predict would create a permanent El Niño – an abnormal warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific that prevents the cold Humboldt Current along the Andean coast of South America from supplying nutrient to tropical waters. The very cyclicity recorded by the Marca Shale strongly suggests that the ENSO is a stable feature of the western Americas. Recent clear implications of ENSO having teleconnections that affect global climate, on this evidence, may not break down with anthropogenic global warming. This confirms similar studies from the Palaeogene and Neogene Periods.