A geochemical modelling study of the evolution of the chemical composition of seawater linked to a global glaciation: implications for life sustainability

The Snowball Earth theory initially proposed by Kirschvink (Kirschvink, 1992) to explain the Neoproterozoic glacial episodes, suggested that the Earth was fully ice-covered at 720 My (Sturtian episode) and 640 My (Marinoan episode). This succession of extreme climatic crises induced a stress which is considered as a strong selective pressure on the evolution of life (Hoffman et al., 1998). However recent biological records (Corsetti, 2006) do not support this theory as little change is observed in the diversity of microfossils outcrops before and after the Marinoan glacial interval. In this contribution we address this apparent paradox. Using a numerical model of carbon-alkalinity global cycles, we quantify several environmental stresses caused by a global glaciation. We suggest that during global glaciations, the ocean becomes acidic (pH~6), and unsaturated with respect to carbonate minerals. Moreover the quick transition from ice-house to greenhouse conditions implies an abrupt and large shift of the oceanic surface temperature which causes an extended hypoxia. The intense continental weathering, in the aftermath of the glaciation, deeply affects the seawater composition inducing rapid changes in terms of pH and alkalinity. We also propose a new timing for post glacial perturbations and for the cap carbonates deposition, ~2 Myr instead of 200 kyr as suggested in a previous modelling study. In terms of Precambrian life sustainability, seawater pH modifications appear drastic all along the glaciation, but we show that the buffering action of the oceanic crust dissolution processes avoids a total collapse of biological productivity. In opposite short-lived and large post-glacial perturbations are more critical and may have played a role of environmental filter suggested in the classic snowball Earth theory. Only a permissive life (prokaryotes or simple eukaryotes) may explain the relative continuity in microfossils diversity observed before, during and after Neoproterozoic glaciation events.

G. Le Hir, Y. Goddéris, Y. Donnadieu, and G. Ramstein, 2007. A geochemical modelling study of the evolution of the chemical composition of seawater linked to a global glaciation: implications for life sustainability. Biogeosciences Discussions 4:1839-1876. Article.

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