Ice sheets may have reached the Equator in the late Proterozoic era (600–800 Myr ago), according to geological and palaeomagnetic studies, possibly resulting in a ‘snowball Earth’. But this period was a critical time in the evolution of multicellular animals, posing the question of how early life survived under such environmental stress. Here we present computer simulations of this unusual climate stage with a coupled climate/ice-sheet model. To simulate a snowball Earth, we use only a reduction in the solar constant compared to present-day conditions and we keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations near present levels. We find rapid transitions into and out of full glaciation that are consistent with the geological evidence. When we combine these results with a general circulation model, some of the simulations result in an equatorial belt of open water that may have provided a refugium for multicellular animals.
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We thank I. Dalziel and L. Gahagan for the plate reconstructions, and N. Christie-Blick, N. Eyles, I. Dalziel, P. Hoffman, M. Huber, A. Knoll and D. Schrag for comments and suggestions. We thank P. Smith for helping to prepare the cover picture. This research was supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council fo Canada, and by the NSF.
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