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A ‘snowball Earth’ climate triggered by continental break-up through changes in runoff

Abstract

Geological and palaeomagnetic studies indicate that ice sheets may have reached the Equator at the end of the Proterozoic eon, 800 to 550 million years ago1,2, leading to the suggestion of a fully ice-covered ‘snowball Earth’3,4. Climate model simulations indicate that such a snowball state for the Earth depends on anomalously low atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations5,6, in addition to the Sun being 6 per cent fainter than it is today. However, the mechanisms producing such low carbon dioxide concentrations remain controversial7,8. Here we assess the effect of the palaeogeographic changes preceding the Sturtian glacial period, 750 million years ago, on the long-term evolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels using the coupled climate9–geochemical10 model GEOCLIM. In our simulation, the continental break-up of Rodinia leads to an increase in runoff and hence consumption of carbon dioxide through continental weathering that decreases atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations by 1,320 p.p.m. This indicates that tectonic changes could have triggered a progressive transition from a ‘greenhouse’ to an ‘icehouse’ climate during the Neoproterozoic era. When we combine these results with the concomitant weathering effect of the voluminous basaltic traps erupted throughout the break-up of Rodinia11, our simulation results in a snowball glaciation.

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Figure 1: Palaeogeographies and hydrologic cycle.
Figure 2: Effect of the Rodinia break-up on the greenhouse effect.
Figure 3: Atmospheric CO2 history during the time period preceding the Sturtian snowball event.

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Correspondence to Yannick Donnadieu.

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Donnadieu, Y., Goddéris, Y., Ramstein, G. et al. A ‘snowball Earth’ climate triggered by continental break-up through changes in runoff. Nature 428, 303–306 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02408

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