Washington D.C: According to a new research, around 720-640 million years ago, much of the Earth's surface was covered in ice during a glaciation that lasted millions of years. Explosive underwater volcanoes were a major feature of this 'Snowball Earth'.
Many aspects of this extreme glaciation remain uncertain, but it is widely thought that the breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia resulted in increased river discharge into the ocean. This changed ocean chemistry and reduced atmospheric CO2 levels, which increased global ice coverage and propelled Earth into severe icehouse conditions.
The Southampton-led research now offers an explanation for these major changes in ocean chemistry.
Lead author of the study Dr Tom Gernon said that when volcanic material is deposited in the oceans it undergoes very rapid and profound chemical alteration that impacts the biogeochemistry of the oceans.
During the breakup of Rodinia, tens of thousands of kilometres of mid-ocean ridge were formed over tens of millions of years. The lava erupted explosively in shallow waters producing large volumes of a glassy pyroclastic rock called hyaloclastite. As these deposits piled up on the sea floor, rapid chemical changes released massive amounts of calcium, magnesium and phosphorus into the ocean.
Dr Gernon explained that according to calculation, over the course of a Snowball glaciation, this chemical build-up is sufficient to explain the thick cap carbonates formed at the end of the Snowball event.
This process also helps explain the unusually high oceanic phosphorus levels, thought to be the catalyst for the origin of animal life on Earth.
The study has been published in Nature Geoscience.