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Origins and assessment of snowball Earth hypotheses

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 June 2007

Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EQ, UK


Brian Harland was for many years an editor of this journal. He was also a seminal figure in the origins of the current ‘snowball Earth’ debate, having recognized in 1964 the significance of coupling emerging palaeomagnetic data on palaeolatitude with his interpretations of diamictites. Harland worked extensively in the Arctic and knew well many of the workers involved in the arguments surrounding the origin of diamictites. He thus had a unique perspective on the evidence and the disputes surrounding it. This was his last paper but he was not able to complete it before he died. However, with the help of Professor Ian Fairchild to whom we are indebted, the editors have lightly revised this work which is presented as the personal view of one of the key figures with a very broad stratigraphic appreciation of the problems of ‘snowball Earth’.

Records of Precambrian glaciation onwards from the late nineteenth century led to the concept of one or more major ice ages. This concept was becoming well advanced by the mid 1930s, particularly through the compilation of Kulling in 1934. Even so tillite stratigraphy shows that glaciation was exceptional rather than typical of Earth history. Some Proterozoic tillites, sandwiched between warm marine facies, indicate low, even equatorial palaeolatitudes as determined magnetically, and more recently led to ideas of a snow- and ice-covered ‘snowball Earth’. However, interbedded non-glacial facies as well as thick tillite successions requiring abundant snowfall both militate against the hypothesis of extreme prolonged freezing temperatures referred to here as an ‘iceball Earth’ in which all oceans and seas were sealed in continuous ice cover. On the other hand tropical environments were interrupted by glaciation several times in the Proterozoic, something that did not recur in the Phanerozoic. The term ‘snowball Earth’ is consistent with the established view of extremely widespread Proterozoic glaciation, but the ‘iceball Earth’ version of this is not compatible with the geological record.

Original Article
© 2007 Cambridge University Press

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