(work in progress)
Integrated geological evidence suggests that grounded ice sheets occurred at sea level across all latitudes during two intervals within the Neoproterozoic era; the “snowball Earth” (SBE) events. Glacial events at ~730 and ~650 million years ago (Ma) were probably followed by a less severe but nonetheless global-scale glaciation at ~580Ma, immediately preceding the proliferation of the first fossils exhibiting unambiguous animal-like form. Existing modeling identifies weathering-induced CO2 draw-down as a critical aspect of glacial inception, but ultimately attributes the SBE phenomenon to unusual tectonic boundary conditions. Here we suggest that the evident directional decrease in Earth’s susceptibility to a SBE suggests that such a-directional abiotic factors are an insufficient explanation for the lack of SBE events since ~580 Ma. Instead we hypothesize that the terrestrial biosphere’s capacity to sustain a given level of biotic weathering-enhancement under suboptimal/declining temperatures, itself decreased over time: because lichens (with a relatively robust tolerance of sub-optimal temperatures) were gradually displaced on the land surface by more complex photosynthetic life (with a narrower temperature window for growth). We use a simple modelling exercise to highlight the critical (but neglected) importance of the temperature sensitivity of the biotic weathering enhancement factor and discuss the likely values of key parameters in relation to both experiments and the results of complex climate models. We show how the terrestrial biosphere’s capacity to sustain a given level of silicate-weathering-induced CO2 draw-down is critical to the temperature/greenhouse forcing at which SBE initiation is conceivable. We do not dispute the importance of low degassing rate and other tectonic factors, but propose that the unique feature of the Neoproterozoic was biology’s capacity to tip the system over the edge into a runaway ice-albedo feedback; compensating for the self-limiting decline in weathering rate during the temperature decrease on the approach to glaciation. Such compensation was more significant in the Neoproterozoic than the Phanerozoic due, ultimately, to changes in the species composition of the weathering interface over the course of evolutionary time.