Escaping the Snowball

So, how does a planet get itself out of a Snowball state? The short answer, as I mentioned in my last post, is “carbon dioxide.” When the Earth was frozen over, volcanic activity didn’t stop–volcanos kept pumping gases, including greenhouse gases such as CO2, into the atmosphere.

Now we get into the geochemical aspects, which are a bit outside my field, so please take my explanation with a grain of salt. Normally, CO2 that enters the atmosphere reacts with rocks on the Earth’s surface, creating carbonate minerals. This process gradually removes CO2 from the atmosphere. When the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, the Earth warms, which speeds up the weathering process and removes CO2 more quickly. This CO2 feedback helps keep the Earth at a comparatively stable temperature over the long term (CO2 weathering is slow, so it can take thousands of years for CO2 to leave the atmosphere even at warmer temperatures.) Here’s a paper on the CO2 weathering feedback (link goes to PDF file) for those who are interested in a more in-depth treatment.

Much of this CO2 weathering process occurs when CO2 combines with minerals to form carbonates, such as calcium carbonate (the principal component of limestone, among other things.) This process is helped along when CO2 mixes with water in rain, rivers, and the ocean. However, on a Snowball Earth, little rain or snow would fall, and few, if any, rivers would flow. No CO2 could dissolve into the oceans, because they would be cut off from the atmosphere by a thick layer of ice. Instead of weathering out of the atmosphere, the CO2 would simply build up over time. As carbon dioxide levels increased, so would the greenhouse effect. Eventually, the CO2 would reach such high concentrations–hundreds of times modern levels, by some estimates (for example, Hoffman and others, 1998)–that the warming greenhouse effect would overcome the cooling effect of the light-reflecting ice.

When the greenhouse finally overcame the ice, it melted quickly, suddenly transforming most of the world’s surface from brilliantly reflective ice to dark, absorbent sea. Without the reflective effect of the ice, the greenhouse effect took over and the temperatures soared. At the same time, the massive amount of CO2 in the atmosphere began to dissolve into the ocean, where it precipitated out to form thick layers of carbonates. These “cap carbonates” are still visible today and form one piece of evidence for the Snowball Earth theory.

This is, of course, just one of several ideas about how the Snowball Earth scenario might have played out. It’s possible that, instead of Snowball Earth, there was a “Slushball” Earth, with open water at the equator. A Slushball Earth would have much less trouble supporting life, which would thrive in the areas of open ocean. On the other hand, that open ocean would act as a sink for CO2, and the Slushball might not be able to accumulate enough CO2 to overcome the albedo of the ice on the rest of the globe. Snowball Earth researchers continue to search for a model that will balance these various factors–account for sea-level glaciers at the tropics, provide a refuge for life, and permit enough CO2 buildup to initiate the return to a normal climate.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, as Levar Burton would say. Much more information on all these topics is available at SnowballEarth.org, which gives a good comprehensive overview of the whole business.

<A diagram from SnowballEarth.org, which gives a good graphical overview of the Snowball event.

A diagram from SnowballEarth.org, which gives a good graphical overview of the Snowball event.

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One Response to “Escaping the Snowball”

  1. Feeding life, feeding back « Squid on the Ice Says:

    […] This post, on the other hand, describes the carbonate weathering cycle–a negative feedback effect. In negative feedback, Effect One (warming of the planet from CO2) leads to Effect Two (weathering speeds up, removing CO2 from the air more quickly) which damps down Effect One (with less CO2, the planet cools down again.) Negative feedbacks make systems more stable. […]

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