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Snowball Earth prevention by dissolved organic carbon remineralization


The ‘snowball Earth’ hypothesis posits the occurrence of a sequence of glaciations in the Earth’s history sufficiently deep that photosynthetic activity was essentially arrested. Because the time interval during which these events are believed to have occurred immediately preceded the Cambrian explosion of life, the issue as to whether such snowball states actually developed has important implications for our understanding of evolutionary biology. Here we couple an explicit model of the Neoproterozoic carbon cycle to a model of the physical climate system. We show that the drawdown of atmospheric oxygen into the ocean, as surface temperatures decline, operates so as to increase the rate of remineralization of a massive pool of dissolved organic carbon. This leads directly to an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, enhanced greenhouse warming of the surface of the Earth, and the prevention of a snowball state.

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Figure 1: The history of δ 13 C inorg variations over the past billion years as measured in sequences of carbonate rocks on land.
Figure 2: Diagram of our carbon-cycle-coupled climate model.
Figure 3: The cyclic glaciation dynamics of the coupled climate–carbon cycle model.
Figure 4: The period of the glacial cycle predicted by the coupled climate–carbon cycle model as a function of the control parameter of the model F21.
Figure 5: Examples of the distribution of land ice and sea ice during the glacial cycle.
Figure 6: Model predictions of δ13Cinorg(t ) as a function of ε(t ) through a single glacial cycle.


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This paper is a contribution to the Polar Climate Stability Network, which is sponsored by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science and a consortium of Canadian universities. Additional assistance was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to W. Richard Peltier.

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Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Notes which provide a detailed mathematical derivation of the Carbon Cycle model as well as a discussion of the settings employed for the initial values of the parameters of the model. Figures S1 and S2 display time series of land ice volume for X=1 and X=2 respectively, both figures demonstrating the trend of increasing period as the value of the control parameter F21 decreases. Figure S3 illustrates the phase relationships between 6 different (normalized) field variables of the model whereas Figure S4 is similar to Figure 6 in the main body of the paper but is based upon the predictions of the model for X = 1. (PDF 1199 kb)

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Peltier, W., Liu, Y. & Crowley, J. Snowball Earth prevention by dissolved organic carbon remineralization. Nature 450, 813–818 (2007).

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