The snowball Earth hypothesis: testing the limits of global change


Paul Hoffman 20 Oxford St., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. E-mail:; fax: +1 617 496 0434.


The gradual discovery that late Neoproterozoic ice sheets extended to sea level near the equator poses a palaeoenvironmental conundrum. Was the Earth's orbital obliquity > 60° (making the tropics colder than the poles) for 4.0 billion years following the lunar-forming impact, or did climate cool globally for some reason to the point at which runaway ice-albedo feedback created a `snowball' Earth? The high-obliquity hypothesis does not account for major features of the Neoproterozoic glacial record such as the abrupt onsets and terminations of discrete glacial events, their close association with large (> 10‰) negative δ13C shifts in seawater proxies, the deposition of strange carbonate layers (`cap carbonates') globally during post-glacial sea-level rise, and the return of large sedimentary iron formations, after a 1.1 billion year hiatus, exclusively during glacial events. A snowball event, on the other hand, should begin and end abruptly, particularly at lower latitudes. It should last for millions of years, because outgassing must amass an intense greenhouse in order to overcome the ice albedo. A largely ice-covered ocean should become anoxic and reduced iron should be widely transported in solution and precipitated as iron formation wherever oxygenic photosynthesis occurred, or upon deglaciation. The intense greenhouse ensures a transient post-glacial regime of enhanced carbonate and silicate weathering, which should drive a flux of alkalinity that could quantitatively account for the world-wide occurrence of cap carbonates. The resulting high rates of carbonate sedimentation, coupled with the kinetic isotope effect of transferring the CO2 burden to the ocean, should drive down the δ13C of seawater, as is observed. If cap carbonates are the `smoke' of a snowball Earth, what was the `gun'? In proposing the original Neoproterozoic snowball Earth hypothesis, Joe Kirschvink postulated that an unusual preponderance of land masses in the middle and low latitudes, consistent with palaeomagnetic evidence, set the stage for snowball events by raising the planetary albedo. Others had pointed out that silicate weathering would most likely be enhanced if many continents were in the tropics, resulting in lower atmospheric CO2 and a colder climate. Negative δ13C shifts of 10–20‰ precede glaciation in many regions, giving rise to speculation that the climate was destabilized by a growing dependency on greenhouse methane, stemming ultimately from the same unusual continental distribution. Given the existing palaeomagnetic, geochemical and geological evidence for late Neoproterozoic climatic shocks without parallel in the Phanerozoic, it seems inevitable that the history of life was impacted, perhaps profoundly so.