The Svalbard exemplar of Neoproterozoic glaciation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences

Abstract

Although life successfully moderates surface conditions on Earth, some events in Earth History have threatened the viability of most life forms. Arguably the most profound and long-lasting challenge in the last 2 billion years was glaciation on a near-global scale (pan-glaciation), with the best documented event being around 650 to 630 million years ago ('Marinoan' glaciation). One overaching model (Snowball Earth hypothesis) proposes that snow and ice was so widespread that the Earth become much more reflective of solar radiation and cooled to a mean temperature of around -50 degrees Celsius. Glaciation was eventually terminated by the build-up of carbon dioxide emitted from volcanoes, that was not used up by the weathering of rocks, since rocks were buried beneath the extensive snow and ice cover. Although the extremity of the cold and the way in which glaciation terminated have been challenged, there is widespread agreement that glaciation reached tropical latitudes at sea level. New data will significantly constrain future modelling efforts. We have recently made a breakthrough in generating a new suite of chemical data on exceptionally well-preserved carbonate precipitates in saline glacial lakes in the Wilsonbreen Formation rocks of Svalbard, thought to be the same age as glacial deposits found on all the continents and referred to as 'Marinoan'. Firstly we find that in terms of oxygen isotopes, these carbonates are the most evaporative yet discovered and so must have formed in a hyperarid environment. Secondly we use new discoveries about the meaning of the abundances of the isotope 17-O in relation to our measurements of sulphur isotope ratios in order to show that the atmosphere was profoundly different from that which existed during younger glaciations: the simplest explanation for it is that the atmosphere was very high in carbon dioxide. This implies that weathering was indeed inhibited by an extensive ice cover. This study and various previous studies have demonstrated the outstanding importance of the rock exposures in these remote locations to understanding this extraordinary event in Earth history - indeed they are the only place where we can find a chemical sedimentary record that allows us to understand conditions on the Earth surface and in the atmosphere. We propose to make new studies over two summer seasons in this remote field area to enable us to fully describe and archive the field relationships and collect suites of samples that will enable us to understand more clearly the preserved evidence. We will use magnetic properties to reconstruct the palaeolatitude of the glacial deposits and will try to determine the age directly by radiometric methods to see if it is consistent with the 'Marinoan'. Our favoured modern analogue for the Wilsonbreen formation saline glacial lakes are found in the intensely cold McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. We will test this idea using physical properties of the sediment whilst the chemical properties will be used to constrain how much water is cycled through the atmosphere, how oxidizing the atmosphere was and whether carbon dioxide had already built up in the atmosphere by the time the first glacial lakes formed. Our work will also extend to the apparently warm- and cold-climate marine deposits that are found above and below two glacial units in the Svalbard in order to understand the broader context. Our work includes a number of new approaches as well as applying tried-and-tested modern methods of dating and magnetic analysis in a new area. We expect to emerge with a clear and vivid picture of the nature of the land surface during one of the most extreme cold events in the history of the planet. We will also find out whether this location could be the best place in the world to formally place a 'golden spike' at the base of the Cryogenian geological period. The information will be disseminated and archived in novel ways.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Demonstrated that the extreme climate event called "Snowball Earth" actually happened and that the deposits of this ice age formed at the end of the interval when the atmosphere, by then rich in carbon dioxide, had warmed up. During this time ice advances and retreats were stimulated by wobbles in the Earth's orbit.
Exploitation Route Background to long-term climate research
Sectors Environment

URL https://theconversation.com/revealed-how-a-wobbly-axis-helped-our-planet-escape-snowball-earth-46543
 
Description Academic conferences 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Developed discussion and influenced other scientists.

Developed discussion and influenced other scientists. Produced collaborations as indicated in publications
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010,2011,2012,2013,2014
 
Description Case history in book for general public 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A chapter in this book translated into French and German concerned the fieldwork in this project.
Alean, J. and Hambrey, M. 2014. Le Tour du Monde des Glaciers. Paris: Delachaux et Niestlé. 296pp.
Alean, J. and Hambrey, M. 2013. Gletscher der Welt. Bern: Haupt AG, 296pp.

not directly
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014
 
Description Public engagement with Snowball earth studies - theConversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Contribution to "The Conversation" coinciding with new publication in Nature Geoscience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://theconversation.com/revealed-how-a-wobbly-axis-helped-our-planet-escape-snowball-earth-46543
 
Description Talks to general public 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Disseminate research to general public through local interest groups in science and geology. Interest generated leads to repeat bookings, but on topics related to other grants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity Pre-2006,2006,2007,2008,