Unraveling the Mystery of the Snowball Earth


A new study by the University of Sydney provides insight into the cause of the Snowball Earth phenomenon, which occurred when Earth was almost completely frozen. The study suggests that historically low volcanic emissions and the weathering of large amounts of volcanic rocks led to this extreme ice age.

Decoding the Enigma of the Snowball Earth
Decoding the Enigma of the Snowball Earth

The Snowball Earth was when our planet experienced an extreme icehouse environment. The entire Earth, from the poles to the equator, was enveloped in ice, and temperatures plummeted drastically. However, the cause behind this drastic climate shift has long been debated and is a mystery among geologists.

A recent study by the University of Sydney, led by ARC Future Fellow Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz, offers a compelling answer to this climatic conundrum. According to the survey, the Snowball Earth phenomenon resulted from historically low volcanic carbon dioxide emissions. This was coupled with the weathering of a large pile of volcanic rocks, a process that absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide.

"Historically low volcanic carbon dioxide emissions, aided by weathering of a large pile of volcanic rocks, were responsible for the Snowball Earth phenomenon" - Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz.

Unveiling the Mechanism of Snowball Earth

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers at the University of Sydney applied plate tectonic modeling. They studied the evolution of continents and ocean basins following the breakup of the ancient supercontinent Rodinia.

Using advanced computer models, they were able to calculate the CO2 degassing of submarine volcanoes along mid-ocean ridges. The results revealed that the start of the Sturtian ice age, a part of the broader Snowball Earth phenomenon, precisely correlates with an all-time low in volcanic CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the CO2 outflux remained relatively low for the entire duration of the ice age.

Implications of the Study

Dr Dutkiewicz stated that there were no multicellular animals or land plants at the time of the Snowball Earth. The greenhouse gas concentration of the atmosphere was almost entirely dictated by CO2 outgassing from volcanoes and silicate rock weathering processes, which consume CO2. As a result, the atmospheric CO2 declined to a threshold that triggered glaciation, estimated to be below 200 parts per million, less than half of today's level.

This study not only presents a plausible explanation for the Snowball Earth phenomenon but also underscores the sensitivity of global climate to atmospheric carbon concentration. The findings provide a stark reminder of the delicate balance that sustains life on Earth and the potential implications of disrupting this balance.

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Arya Chandran

Arya Chandran

Greetings! My name is Arya, and science is my passion. Ever since my school days, I have been captivated by the world of exact sciences, and my interest in the subject has only grown stronger with time. I find great joy in exploring the intricacies of physics, mathematics, biology, and other fascinating fields of study. It would be my pleasure to embark on a scientific journey with you, where we can delve deeper into the wonders of the natural world together.