Asteroids and ‘Snowball Earth’: Unraveling the Mysteries of Global Glaciation
Unveiling the ‘Snowball Earth’ Hypothesis
One of the most intriguing phenomena in Earth’s climatic history is the occurrence of global glaciations, often referred to as ‘Snowball Earth’ events. These were periods when the Earth’s surface was extensively or entirely frozen. A new study, as published in the journal Science Advances, suggests a fascinating theory behind these dramatic climatic shifts. The researchers propose that these ‘Snowball Earth’ periods might have been abruptly triggered by large asteroids slamming into the Earth.
Role of Asteroids in Global Glaciation
The study, backed by the Flint Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale and the ARCHANGE project, involved researchers from Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of Vienna. The team utilized a sophisticated climate model to explore the possibility that under specific cold climate conditions, an asteroid impact could tip the Earth into a ‘Snowball’ state in just a decade.
Previous theories primarily attributed declines in greenhouse gases as the cause of these global cooling episodes. However, this study brings into focus the role of extraterrestrial impacts in these dramatic climate shifts. The researchers suggest that asteroid impacts at critical junctures in Earth’s past could have caused ‘Snowball Earth’ conditions.
Uncovering the Thermostat of Earth
While revisiting the ‘Snowball Earth’ phenomenon, the study also sheds light on the Earth’s thermostat and its sensitivity to atmospheric carbon concentration. The research links historically low volcanic carbon dioxide emissions to a 57 million year-long global ice age. This underscores the potential for long-term climate change due to lower volcanic CO2 emissions, emphasizing the importance of understanding past climatic events to shape our future.
Impact of Asteroids on Ancient Earth
Delving deeper into the past, the researchers suggest that a cataclysmic asteroid impact may have caused the Earth to enter a ‘Snowball Earth’ state over 600 million years ago, leading to global glaciation. The climatic consequences of a large asteroid impact at four points in ancient Earth were modeled, concluding that an impact during the Neoproterozoic Era or at the Last Glacial Maximum could have pushed the Earth into a global glaciation state.
The effects of an asteroid impact may have led to a rapid shift to a frozen Earth by liberating vast amounts of particles and sending them into the sky, which can reflect sunlight and cool the Earth. The hypothetical impact crater preceding past global glaciation might have been destroyed by burial, erosion, or subduction of the corresponding crust back into the Earth’s mantle.
Implications for the Future
Interestingly, the study also notes that the likelihood of an asteroid-induced ‘Snowball Earth’ period occurring in the future is low, mainly due to human-caused warming. This finding offers a silver lining, suggesting that the risk of a global glaciation from an asteroid impact in the future would be unlikely.
The ‘Snowball Earth’ periods may have had a profound influence on the evolution of life on Earth. The harsh conditions during these periods could have fueled the evolution of multicellular life, indicating that these global glaciation events might have played a pivotal role in shaping life as we know it today.