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A carbon isotope challenge to the snowball Earth

Abstract

The snowball Earth hypothesis postulates that the planet was entirely covered by ice for millions of years in the Neoproterozoic era, in a self-enhanced glaciation caused by the high albedo of the ice-covered planet. In a hard-snowball picture, the subsequent rapid unfreezing resulted from an ultra-greenhouse event attributed to the buildup of volcanic carbon dioxide (CO2) during glaciation1. High partial pressures of atmospheric CO2 (; from 20,000 to 90,000 p.p.m.v.) in the aftermath of the Marinoan glaciation (635 Myr ago) have been inferred from both boron and triple oxygen isotopes2,3. These values are 50 to 225 times higher than present-day levels. Here, we re-evaluate these estimates using paired carbon isotopic data for carbonate layers that cap Neoproterozoic glacial deposits and are considered to record post-glacial sea level rise1. The new data reported here for Brazilian cap carbonates, together with previous ones for time-equivalent units4,5,6,7,8, provide estimates lower than 3,200 p.p.m.v.—and possibly as low as the current value of 400 p.p.m.v. Our new constraint, and our re-interpretation of the boron and triple oxygen isotope data, provide a completely different picture of the late Neoproterozoic environment, with low atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and oxygen that are inconsistent with a hard-snowball Earth.

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Figure 1: Isotope and age data for cap carbonates.
Figure 2: Relationship between photosynthetic fractionation factor ( ε p ), temperature and CO 2 concentrations.
Figure 3: Relationship between (p.p.m.v.) and Δ 17 O(O 2 ) for 20% and 1% O 2 , assuming a modern value for O 2 residence time of 1,200 yr.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Geochemistry division of IFP Energie nouvelle for performing Rock-Eval analyses. The work benefited from discussions with M. Bonifacie, G. LeHir, G. Paris and H. Strauss. Research was supported by a French MRT doctoral fellowship and a SETSI grant to P.S., and two INSU (SYSTER) grants to M.A.. R.I.F.T. and A.C.R.N. were supported by the INCT-Geociam programme, and by FAPESP and CNPq grants. J.L. was supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute under cooperative agreement NNA09DA76 to the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center. This is IPGP contribution 3211.

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Contributions

M.A. and R.I.F.T. conceived the work. P.S., M.A., R.I.F.T. and A.C.R.N. did the sampling. P.S., M.A., R.I.F.T. and P.C. wrote the paper and most of the Supplementary Information. P.S. carried out carbon isotope analyses. P.S. and M.E. did molecular organic geochemistry analyses and wrote the related Supplementary Information. M.A. and M.E. wrote Supplementary Information corresponding to the Rock-Eval data. J.L. performed triple-oxygen modelling and wrote the corresponding parts of the main text and Supplementary Information. A.C.R.N. organized the field work and contributed the geological setting of samples. All authors discussed results and contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to P. Sansjofre.

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Sansjofre, P., Ader, M., Trindade, R. et al. A carbon isotope challenge to the snowball Earth. Nature 478, 93–96 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10499

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