Palaeoenvironments and weathering regime of the Neoproterozoic Squantum ‘Tillite’, Boston Basin: no evidence of a snowball Earth



The snowball Earth hypothesis describes episodes of Neoproterozoic global glaciations, when ice sheets reached sea-level, the ocean froze to great depth and biota were decimated, accompanied by a complete shutdown of the hydrological cycle. Recent studies of sedimentary successions and Earth systems modelling, however, have brought the hypothesis under considerable debate. The Squantum ‘Tillite’ (Boston Basin, USA), is one of the best constrained snowball Earth successions with respect to age and palaeogeography, and it is suitable to test the hypothesis for the Gaskiers glaciation. The approach used here was to assess the palaeoenvironmental conditions at the type locality of the Squantum Member through an analysis of sedimentary facies and weathering regime (chemical index of alteration). The stratigraphic succession with a total thickness of ca 330 m documents both glacial and non-glacial depositional environments with a cool-temperate glacial to temperate non-glacial climate weathering regime. The base of the succession is composed of thin diamictites and mudstones that carry evidence of sedimentation from floating glacial ice, interbedded with inner shelf sandstones and mudstones. Thicker diamictites interbedded with thin sandstones mark the onset of gravity flow activity, followed by graded sandstones documenting channellized mass gravity flow events. An upward decrease in terrigenous supply is evident, culminating in deep-water mudstones with a non-glacial chemical weathering signal. Renewed terrigenous supply and iceberg sedimentation is evident at the top of the succession, beyond which exposure is lost. The glacially influenced sedimentary facies at Squantum Head are more consistent with meltwater dominated alpine glaciation or small local ice caps. The chemical index of alteration values of 61 to 75 for the non-volcanic rocks requires significant exposure of land surfaces to allow chemical weathering. Therefore, extreme snowball Earth conditions with a complete shutdown of the hydrological cycle do not seem to apply to the Gaskiers glaciation.