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Snowball Earth

by Paul F. Hoffman and Daniel P. Schrag

Ice entombed our planet hundreds of millions


of years ago, and complex animals evolved in
the greenhouse heat wave that followed

O ur human ancestors had it rough. Saber-toothed


cats and woolly mammoths may have been day-
to-day concerns, but harsh climate was a consum-
ing long-term challenge. During the past million years, they
faced one ice age after another. At the height of the last icy
Aside from grinding glaciers and groaning sea ice, the only stir
comes from a smattering of volcanoes forcing their hot heads
above the frigid surface. Although it seems the planet might
never wake from its cryogenic slumber, the volcanoes slowly
manufacture an escape from the chill: carbon dioxide.
episode, 20,000 years ago, glaciers more than two kilometers With the chemical cycles that normally consume carbon
thick gripped much of North America and Europe. The chill dioxide halted by the frost, the gas accumulates to record lev-
delivered ice as far south as New York City. els. The heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide a green-
Dramatic as it may seem, this extreme climate change pales house gas warms the planet and begins to melt the ice. The
in comparison to the catastrophic events that some of our ear- thaw takes only a few hundred years, but a new problem
liest microscopic ancestors endured around 600 million years arises in the meantime: a brutal greenhouse effect. Any crea-
ago. Just before the appearance of recognizable animal life, in tures that survived the icehouse must now endure a hothouse.
a time period known as the Neoproterozoic, an ice age pre- As improbable as it may sound, we see clear evidence that
vailed with such intensity that even the tropics froze over. this striking climate reversal the most extreme imaginable
Imagine the earth hurtling through space like a cosmic snow- on this planet happened as many as four times between 750
ball for 10 million years or more. Heat escaping from the million and 580 million years ago. Scientists long presumed
molten core prevents the oceans from freezing to the bottom, that the earths climate was never so severe; such intense cli-
but ice grows a kilometer thick in the 50 degree Celsius cold. mate change has been more widely accepted for other planets
All but a tiny fraction of the planets primitive organisms die. such as Venus [see Global Climate Change on Venus, by

68 Scientific American January 2000 Snowball Earth


Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.
GLEN ALLISON Digital Imagery 1999 PhotoDisc, Inc.

COURTESY OF PAUL F. HOFFMAN


Mark A. Bullock and David H. Grinspoon; Scientific
American, March 1999]. Hints of a harsh past on the earth
began cropping up in the early 1960s, but we and our col-
leagues have found new evidence in the past eight years that
has helped us weave a more explicit tale that is capturing the TOWERS OF ICE like Argentinas Moreno Glacier (above)
attention of geologists, biologists and climatologists alike. once buried the earths continents. Clues about this frozen past
Thick layers of ancient rock hold the only clues to the cli- have surfaced in layers of barren rock such as these hills near the
mate of the Neoproterozoic. For decades, many of those coast of northwest Namibia (inset).
clues appeared rife with contradiction. The first paradox was
the occurrence of glacial debris near sea level in the tropics.
Glaciers near the equator today survive only at 5,000 meters accumulated just after the glaciers receded. If the earth were
above sea level or higher, and at the worst of the last ice age ever cold enough to ice over completely, how did it warm up
they reached no lower than 4,000 meters. Mixed in with the again? In addition, the carbon isotopic signature in the rocks
glacial debris are unusual deposits of iron-rich rock. These hinted at a prolonged drop in biological productivity. What
deposits should have been able to form only if the Neopro- could have caused this dramatic loss of life?
terozoic oceans and atmosphere contained little or no oxy- Each of these long-standing enigmas suddenly makes sense
gen, but by that time the atmosphere had already evolved to when we look at them as key plot developments in the tale of
nearly the same mixture of gases as it has today. To confound a snowball earth. The theory has garnered cautious sup-
matters, rocks known to form in warm water seem to have port in the scientific community since we first introduced the

Snowball Earth Scientific American January 2000 69


Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.
Realizing that the glaciers must have
covered the tropics, Harland became the
first geologist to suggest that the earth
SOUTH CHINA AUSTRALIA had experienced a great Neoproterozoic
SIBERIA ice age [see The Great Infra-Cambrian
KAZAKHSTAN
NORTH AMERICA Glaciation, by W. B. Harland and
M.J.S. Rudwick; Scientific American,
AFRICA
August 1964]. Although some of Har-
INDIA lands contemporaries were skeptical
WEST
AFRICA about the reliability of the magnetic
data, other scientists have since shown
EASTERN that Harlands hunch was correct. But
HEIDI NOLAND

SOUTH AMERICA NORTHERN SOUTH AMERICA


EUROPE ANTARCTICA no one was able to find an explanation
for how glaciers could have survived the
tropical heat.
At the time Harland was announcing
EARTHS LANDMASSES were most likely clustered near the equator during the global
glaciations that took place around 600 million years ago. Although the continents have his ideas about Neoproterozoic glaciers,
since shifted position, relics of the debris left behind when the ice melted are exposed at physicists were developing the first
dozens of points on the present land surface, including what is now Namibia (red dot). mathematical models of the earths cli-
mate. Mikhail Budyko of the Leningrad
Geophysical Observatory found a way
idea in the journal Science a year and a outcrops across virtually every continent. to explain tropical glaciers using equa-
half ago. If we turn out to be right, the By the early 1960s scientists had begun tions that describe the way solar radia-
tale does more than explain the myster- to accept the idea of plate tectonics, tion interacts with the earths surface
ies of Neoproterozoic climate and chal- which describes how the planets thin, and atmosphere to control climate.
lenge long-held assumptions about the rocky skin is broken into giant pieces Some geographic surfaces reflect more
limits of global change. These extreme that move atop a churning mass of hotter of the suns incoming energy than oth-
glaciations occurred just before a rapid rock below. Harland suspected that the ers, a quantifiable characteristic known
diversification of multicellular life, cul- continents had clustered together near as albedo. White snow reflects the most
minating in the so-called Cambrian ex- the equator in the Neoproterozoic, based solar energy and has a high albedo,
plosion between 575 and 525 million on the magnetic orientation of tiny min- darker-colored seawater has a low albe-
years ago. Ironically, the long periods of eral grains in the glacial rocks. Before do, and land surfaces have intermediate
isolation and extreme environments on the rocks hardened, these grains aligned values that depend on the types and dis-
a snowball earth would most likely have themselves with the magnetic field and tribution of vegetation.
spurred on genetic change and could dipped only slightly relative to horizon- The more radiation the planet reflects,
help account for this evolutionary burst. tal because of their position near the the cooler the temperature. With their
The search for the surprisingly strong equator. (If they had formed near the high albedo, snow and ice cool the at-
evidence for these climatic events has poles, their magnetic orientation would mosphere and thus stabilize their own
taken us around the world. Although be nearly vertical.) existence. Budyko knew that this phe-
we are now examining Neoproterozoic
rocks in Australia, China, the western
U.S. and the Arctic islands of Svalbard,
we began our investigations in 1992
along the rocky cliffs of Namibias
Skeleton Coast. In Neoproterozoic
times, this region of southwestern Africa
was part of a vast, gently subsiding
continental shelf located in low south-
ern latitudes.
There we see evidence of glaciers in
rocks formed from deposits of dirt and
debris left behind when the ice melted.
Rocks dominated by calcium- and mag-
nesium-carbonate minerals lie just
above the glacial debris and harbor the
chemical evidence of the hothouse that
followed. After hundreds of millions of
COURTESY OF DANIEL P. SCHRAG

years of burial, these now exposed


rocks tell the story that scientists first
began to piece together 35 years ago.
In 1964 W. Brian Harland of the Uni-
versity of Cambridge pointed out that
glacial deposits dot Neoproterozoic rock

70 Scientific American January 2000 Snowball Earth


Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.
nomenon, called the ice-albedo feed- tinuity of life. Also, once the earth had The key to the second problem re-
back, helps modern polar ice sheets to entered a deep freeze, the high albedo versing the runaway freeze is carbon
grow. But his climate simulations also of its icy veneer would have driven sur- dioxide. In a span as short as a human
revealed that this feedback can run out face temperatures so low that it seemed lifetime, the amount of carbon dioxide
of control. When ice formed at latitudes there would have been no means of es- in the atmosphere can change as plants
lower than around 30 degrees north or cape. Had such a glaciation occurred, consume the gas for photosynthesis and
south of the equator, the planets albedo Budyko and others reasoned, it would as animals breathe it out during respi-
began to rise at a faster rate because di- have been permanent. ration. Moreover, human activities such
rect sunlight was striking a larger surface The first of these objections began to as burning fossil fuels have rapidly
area of ice per degree of latitude. The fade in the late 1970s with the discovery loaded the air with carbon dioxide
feedback became so strong in his simula- of remarkable communities of organ- since the beginning of the Industrial
tion that surface temperatures plummet- isms living in places once thought too Revolution in the late 1700s. In the
ed and the entire planet froze over. harsh to harbor life. Seafloor hot springs earths lifetime, however, these carbon
support microbes that thrive on chemi- sources and sinks become irrelevant
Frozen and Fried cals rather than sunlight. The kind of compared with geologic processes.
volcanic activity that feeds the hot Carbon dioxide is one of several gas-

B udykos simulation ignited interest


in the fledgling science of climate
modeling, but even he did not believe
springs would have continued unabated
in a snowball earth. Survival prospects
seem even rosier for psychrophilic, or
es emitted from volcanoes. Normally
this endless supply of carbon is offset
by the erosion of silicate rocks: The
the earth could have actually experi- cold-loving, organisms of the kind living chemical breakdown of the rocks con-
enced a runaway freeze. Almost every- today in the intensely cold and dry verts carbon dioxide to bicarbonate,
one assumed that such a catastrophe mountain valleys of East Antarctica. which is washed to the oceans. There
would have extinguished all life, and Cyanobacteria and certain kinds of algae bicarbonate combines with calcium
yet signs of microscopic algae in rocks occupy habitats such as snow, porous and magnesium ions to produce car-
up to one billion years old closely re- rock and the surfaces of dust particles en- bonate sediments, which store a great
semble modern forms and imply a con- cased in floating ice. deal of carbon [see Modeling the Geo-

COURTESY OF DANIEL P. SCHRAG


CAP CARBONATES
CRYSTAL FANS

ROCKY CLIFFS along Namibias Skele-


ton Coast (left) have provided some of
the best evidence for the snowball earth
hypothesis. Authors Schrag (far left) and
Hoffman point to a rock layer that repre-
GLACIAL DEPOSITS

sents the abrupt end of a 700-million-year-


old snowball event. The light-colored
boulder in the rock between them proba-
bly once traveled within an iceberg and
COURTESY OF GALEN PIPPA HALVERSON

fell to the muddy seafloor when the ice


melted. Pure carbonate layers stacked
above the glacial deposits precipitated in
the warm, shallow seas of the hothouse
aftermath. These cap carbonates are the
only Neoproterozoic rocks that exhibit
large crystal fans, which accompany rapid
carbonate accumulation (above).

Snowball Earth Scientific American January 2000 71


Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.
chemical Carbon Cycle, by R. A. Bern- much earlier in earth history when the present-day concentration of carbon
er and A. C. Lasaga; Scientific Amer- oceans (and atmosphere) contained dioxide. Assuming volcanoes of the
ican, March 1989]. very little oxygen and iron could read- Neoproterozoic belched out gases at the
In 1992 Joseph L. Kirschvink, a geo- ily dissolve. (Iron is virtually insoluble same rate as they do today, the planet
biologist at the California Institute of in the presence of oxygen.) Kirschvink would have remained locked in ice for
Technology, pointed out that during a reasoned that millions of years of ice up to tens of millions of years before
global glaciation, an event he termed a cover would deprive the oceans of enough carbon dioxide could accumu-
snowball earth, shifting tectonic plates oxygen, so that dissolved iron expelled late to begin melting the sea ice. A
would continue to build volcanoes and from seafloor hot springs could accu- snowball earth would be not only the
to supply the atmosphere with carbon mulate in the water. Once a carbon most severe conceivable ice age, it would
dioxide. At the same time, the liquid dioxideinduced greenhouse effect be- be the most prolonged.
water needed to erode rocks and bury gan melting the ice, oxygen would again
the carbon would be trapped in ice. mix with the seawater and force the Carbonate Clues
With nowhere to go, carbon dioxide iron to precipitate out with the debris
would collect to incredibly high levels
high enough, Kirschvink proposed, to
heat the planet and end the global freeze.
once carried by the sea ice and glaciers.
With this greenhouse scenario in mind,
climate modelers Kenneth Caldeira of
K irschvink was unaware of two
emerging lines of evidence that
would strongly support his snowball
Kirschvink had originally promoted Lawrence Livermore National Labora- earth hypothesis. The first is that the
the idea of a Neoproterozoic deep freeze tory and James F. Kasting of Pennsylva- Neoproterozoic glacial deposits are al-
in part because of mysterious iron de- nia State University estimated in 1992 most everywhere blanketed by carbon-
posits found mixed with the glacial de- that overcoming the runaway freeze ate rocks. Such rocks typically form in
bris. These rare deposits are found would require roughly 350 times the warm, shallow seas, such as the Ba-

EVOLUTION OF A SNOWBALL EARTH EVENT . . .

Stage 1 Stage 2
Snowball Earth Prologue Snowball Earth
at Its Coldest

CARBON DIOXIDE

SEA ICE
HOT VOLCANO
SPRING
SAND
DUNES

Breakup of a single landmass 770 million years ago leaves Average global temperatures plummet to 50 degrees Cel-
small continents scattered near the equator. Formerly land- sius shortly after the runaway freeze begins.The oceans ice
locked areas are now closer to oceanic sources of moisture. over to an average depth of more than a kilometer, limited
Increased rainfall scrubs more heat-trapping carbon dioxide only by heat emanating slowly from the earths interior.Most
out of the air and erodes continental rocks more quickly. microscopic marine organisms die, but a few cling to life
Consequently, global temperatures fall, and large ice packs around volcanic hot springs. The cold, dry air arrests the
form in the polar oceans. The white ice reflects more solar en- growth of land glaciers, creating vast deserts of windblown
ergy than does darker seawater, driving temperatures even sand.With no rainfall,carbon dioxide emitted from volcanoes
lower. This feedback cycle triggers an unstoppable cooling is not removed from the atmosphere.As carbon dioxide ac-
effect that will engulf the planet in ice within a millennium. cumulates,the planet warms and sea ice slowly thins.

72 Scientific American January 2000 Snowball Earth


Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.
hama Banks in what is now the Atlantic melting begins, low-albedo seawater re- ate sediment that would rapidly accu-
Ocean. If the ice and warm water had places high-albedo ice and the runaway mulate on the seafloor and later be-
occurred millions of years apart, no one freeze is reversed [see illustration below]. come rock. Structures preserved in the
would have been surprised. But the The greenhouse atmosphere helps to Namibian cap carbonates indicate that
transition from glacial deposits to these drive surface temperatures upward to al- they accumulated extremely rapidly,
cap carbonates is abrupt and lacks most 50 degrees C, according to calcula- perhaps in only a few thousand years.
evidence that significant time passed be- tions made last summer by climate mod- For example, crystals of the mineral
tween when the glaciers dropped their eler Raymond T. Pierrehumbert of the aragonite, clusters of which are as tall
last loads and when the carbonates University of Chicago. as a person, could precipitate only from
formed. Geologists were stumped to ex- Resumed evaporation also helps to seawater highly saturated in calcium
plain so sudden a change from glacial to warm the atmosphere because water carbonate.
tropical climates. vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, Cap carbonates harbor a second line
Pondering our field observations from and a swollen reservoir of moisture in of evidence that supports Kirschvinks
Namibia, we realized that this change is the atmosphere would drive an en- snowball escape scenario. They contain
no paradox. Thick sequences of carbon- hanced water cycle. Torrential rain an unusual pattern in the ratio of two
ate rocks are the expected consequence would scrub some of the carbon diox- isotopes of carbon: common carbon 12
of the extreme greenhouse conditions ide out of the air in the form of carbon- and rare carbon 13, which has an extra
unique to the transient aftermath of a ic acid, which would rapidly erode the neutron in its nucleus. The same pat-
snowball earth. If the earth froze over, rock debris left bare as the glaciers sub- terns are observed in cap carbonates
an ultrahigh carbon dioxide atmosphere sided. Chemical erosion products would worldwide, but no one thought to in-
would be needed to raise temperatures quickly build up in the ocean water, terpret them in terms of a snowball
to the melting point at the equator. Once leading to the precipitation of carbon- earth. Along with Alan Jay Kaufman,

... AND ITS HOTHOUSE AFTERMATH

Stage 3 Stage 4
Snowball Earth Hothouse Aftermath
as It Thaws

GLACIERS CARBONATE
SEDIMENT

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase As tropical oceans thaw, seawater evaporates and works
1,000-fold as a result of some 10 million years of normal vol- along with carbon dioxide to produce even more intense
canic activity. The ongoing greenhouse warming effect greenhouse conditions. Surface temperatures soar to more
pushes temperatures to the melting point at the equator. As than 50 degrees Celsius,driving an intense cycle of evapora-
the planet heats up, moisture from sea ice sublimating near tion and rainfall.Torrents of carbonic acid rain erode the rock
the equator refreezes at higher elevations and feeds the debris left in the wake of the retreating glaciers. Swollen
growth of land glaciers. The open water that eventually rivers wash bicarbonate and other ions into the oceans,
forms in the tropics absorbs more solar energy and initiates where they form carbonate sediment. New life-forms en-
a faster rise in global temperatures.In a matter of centuries,a gendered by prolonged genetic isolation and selective pres-
DAVID FIERSTEIN

brutally hot,wet world will supplant the deep freeze. sure populate the world as global climate returns to normal.

Snowball Earth Scientific American January 2000 73


Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.
ALL ANIMALS descended from the first eukaryotes, cells with a membrane-
bound nucleus, which appeared about two billion years ago. By the time of
the first snowball earth episode more than one billion years later, eukary- SNOWBALL
otes had not developed beyond unicellular protozoa and filamentous algae. EARTH
But despite the extreme climate, which may have pruned the eukaryote EVENTS EMERGENCE
tree (dashed lines), all 11 animal phyla ever to inhabit the earth emerged OF ANIMALS
within a narrow window of time in the aftermath of the last snowball event. Poriferans
The prolonged genetic isolation and selective pressure intrinsic to a snow-
ball earth could be responsible for this explosion of new life-forms. Cnidarians
Echinoderms

an isotope geochemist now at the Uni- Chordates


versity of Maryland, and Harvard Uni- Brachiopods
versity graduate student Galen Pippa

ES
Platyhelminths

OT
Halverson, we have discovered that the

RY
isotopic variation is consistent over Annelids

KA
EU
many hundreds of kilometers of ex-

IA
Mollusks

ER
posed rock in northern Namibia. x

CT
Priapulids

BA
Carbon dioxide moving into the x Nematodes
oceans from volcanoes is about 1 per-
cent carbon 13; the rest is carbon 12. If Arthropods
ARCHAEA
the formation of carbonate rocks were

HEIDI NOLAND
the only process removing carbon from

0
00
00

00

0
00

00

0
the oceans, then the rock would have the

80
90

70

60

50
2,5
3,0

2,0
3,5

1,5
same fraction of carbon 13 as that
which comes out of volcanoes. But the Time (millions of years ago)
soft tissues of algae and bacteria growing
in seawater also use carbon from the wa-
ter around them, and their photosynthet- prolonged collapse in biological activity. body plans that show up suddenly in
ic machinery prefers carbon 12 to carbon Overall, the snowball earth hypothe- the fossil record during the Cambrian
13. Consequently, the carbon that is left sis explains many extraordinary obser- explosion [see illustration on this page].
to build carbonate rocks in a life-filled vations in the geologic record of the A series of global freeze-fry events
ocean such as we have today has a high- Neoproterozoic world: the carbon iso- would have imposed an environmental
er ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 than topic variations associated with the filter on the evolution of life. All extant
does the carbon fresh out of a volcano. glacial deposits, the paradox of cap car- eukaryotes would thus stem from the
The carbon isotopes in the Neopro- bonates, the evidence for long-lived survivors of the Neoproterozoic calam-
terozoic rocks of Namibia record a dif- glaciers at sea level in the tropics, and the ity. Some measure of the extent of eu-
ferent situation. Just before the glacial associated iron deposits. The strength of karyotic extinctions may be evident in
deposits, the amount of carbon 13 the hypothesis is that it simultaneously universal trees of life. Phylogenetic
plummets to levels equivalent to the vol- explains all these salient features, none trees indicate how various groups of or-
canic source, a drop we think records of which had satisfactory independent ganisms evolved from one another,
decreasing biological productivity as ice explanations. What is more, we believe based on their degrees of similarity.
encrusted the oceans at high latitudes this hypothesis sheds light on the early These days biologists commonly draw
and the earth teetered on the edge of a evolution of animal life. these trees by looking at the sequences
runaway freeze. Once the oceans iced of nucleic acids in living organisms.
over completely, productivity would Survival and Redemption of Life Most such trees depict the eukaryotes
have essentially ceased, but no carbon phylogeny as a delayed radiation crown-
record of this time interval exists be-
cause calcium carbonate could not have
formed in an ice-covered ocean. This
I n the 1960s Martin J. S. Rudwick,
working with Brian Harland, pro-
posed that the climate recovery follow-
ing a long, unbranched stem. The lack of
early branching could mean that most
eukaryotic lineages were pruned dur-
drop in carbon 13 persists through the ing a huge Neoproterozoic glaciation ing the snowball earth episodes. The
cap carbonates atop the glacial deposits paved the way for the explosive radia- creatures that survived the glacial epi-
and then gradually rebounds to higher tion of multicellular animal life soon sodes may have taken refuge at hot
levels of carbon 13 several hundred me- thereafter. Eukaryotes cells that have springs both on the seafloor and near the
ters above, presumably recording the a membrane-bound nucleus and from surface of the ice where photosynthesis
recovery of life at the end of the hot- which all plants and animals descend- could be maintained.
house period. ed had emerged more than one billion The steep and variable temperature
Abrupt variation in this carbon iso- years earlier, but the most complex or- and chemical gradients endemic to eph-
tope record shows up in carbonate ganisms that had evolved when the first emeral hot springs would preselect for
rocks that represent other times of mass Neoproterozoic glaciation hit were fila- survival in the hellish aftermath to
extinction, but none are as large or as mentous algae and unicellular proto- come. In the face of varying environ-
long-lived. Even the meteorite impact zoa. It has always been a mystery why mental stress, many organisms respond
that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million it took so long for these primitive or- with wholesale genetic alterations. Se-
years ago did not bring about such a ganisms to diversify into the 11 animal vere stress encourages a great degree of

74 Scientific American January 2000 Snowball Earth


Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.
genetic change in a short time, be- cess stifled, the carbon dioxide in
cause organisms that can most the atmosphere stabilizes at a level
quickly alter their genes will have high enough to fend off the ad-
the most opportunities to acquire vancing ice sheets. If all the conti-
traits that will help them adapt nents cluster in the tropics, on the
and proliferate. other hand, they would remain
Hot-spring communities widely ice-free even as the earth grew
separated geographically on the icy colder and approached the criti-
surface of the globe would accumu- cal threshold for a runaway freeze.
late genetic diversity over millions Some say the world will end in fire, The carbon dioxide safety
of years. When two groups that switch would fail because car-
start off the same are isolated from Some say in ice. bon burial continues unchecked.
each other long enough under dif- From what Ive tasted of desire We may never know the true
ferent conditions, chances are that trigger for a snowball earth, as
at some point the extent of genetic I hold with those who favor fire. we have but simple theories for
mutation will produce a new spe-
cies. Repopulations occurring after
But if it had to perish twice, the ultimate forcing of climate
change, even in recent times. But
each glaciation would come about I think I know enough of hate we should be wary of the planets
under unusual and rapidly chang- To say that for destruction ice capacity for extreme change. For
ing selective pressures quite differ- the past million years, the earth
ent from those preceding the gla- Is also great has been in its coldest state since
ciation; such conditions would also animals first appeared, but even
favor the emergence of new life-
And would suffice. the greatest advance of glaciers
forms. 20,000 years ago was far from the
Martin Rudwick may not have Robert Frost, critical threshold needed to plunge
gone far enough with his inference Fire and Ice (1923) the earth into a snowball state.
that climatic amelioration follow- Certainly during the next several
ing the great Neoproterozoic ice hundred years, we will be more
age paved the way for early animal evo- event has occurred since that time. But concerned with humanitys effects on cli-
lution. The extreme climatic events them- convincing geologic evidence suggests mate as the earth heats up in response to
selves may have played an active role in that no such glaciations occurred in the carbon dioxide emissions [see The Hu-
spawning multicellular animal life. billion or so years before the Neopro- man Impact on Climate Change, by
We have shown how the worldwide terozoic, when the sun was even cooler. Thomas R. Karl and Kevin E. Trenberth;
glacial deposits and carbonate rocks in The unusual configuration of conti- Scientific American, December 1999].
the Neoproterozoic record point to an nents near the equator during Neopro- But could a frozen world be in our more
extraordinary type of climatic event, a terozoic times may better explain how distant future?
snowball earth followed by a briefer snowball events get rolling [see illustra- We are still some 80,000 years from
but equally noxious greenhouse world. tion on page 70]. When the continents the peak of the next ice age, so our first
But what caused these calamities in the are nearer the poles, as they are today, chance for an answer is far in the fu-
first place, and why has the world been carbon dioxide in the atmosphere re- ture. It is difficult to say where the
spared such events in more recent histo- mains in high enough concentrations to earths climate will drift over millions of
ry? The first possibility to consider is keep the planet warm. When global tem- years. If the trend of the past million
that the Neoproterozoic sun was weak- peratures drop enough that glaciers cover years continues and if the polar conti-
er by approximately 6 percent, making the high-latitude continents, as they do in nental safety switch were to fail, we
the earth more susceptible to a global Antarctica and Greenland, the ice sheets may once again experience a global ice
freeze. The slow warming of our sun as prevent chemical erosion of the rocks be- catastrophe that would inevitably jolt
it ages might explain why no snowball neath the ice. With the carbon burial pro- life in some new direction. SA

The Authors Further Information

PAUL F. HOFFMAN and DANIEL P. SCHRAG, both at Harvard Origin and Early Evolution of the Metazoa. Edited by
University, bring complementary expertise to bear on the snowball J. H. Lipps and P. W. Signor. Plenum Publishing, 1992.
earth hypothesis. Hoffman is a field geologist who has long studied an- The Origin of Animal Body Plans. D. Erwin, J. Valentine
cient rocks to unravel the earths early history. He led the series of ex- and D. Jablonski in American Scientist, Vol. 85, No. 2, pages
peditions to northwestern Namibia that turned up evidence for Neo- 126137; MarchApril 1997.
proterozoic snowball earth events. Schrag is a geochemical oceanogra- A Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth. P. F. Hoffman, A. J.
pher who uses the chemical and isotopic variations of coral reefs, Kaufman, G. P. Halverson and D. P. Schrag in Science, Vol.
deep-sea sediments and carbonate rocks to study climate on timescales 281, pages 13421346; August 28, 1998.
ranging from months to millions of years. Together they were able to The First Ice Age. Kristin Leutwyler. Available only at www.
interpret the geologic and geochemical evidence from Namibia and to sciam.com/2000/0100issue/0100hoffman.html on the Scientific
explore the implications of a snowball earth and its aftermath. American Web site.

Snowball Earth Scientific American January 2000 75


Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.