The Earth has endured many changes in its 4.5-billion-year history, with some tumultuous twists and turns along the way. One especially dramatic episode appears to have come between 700 million and 600 million years ago, when scientists think ice smothered the entire planet, from the poles to the equator — twice in quick succession.
Drawing on evidence across multiple continents, scientists say these Snowball Earth events may have paved the way for the Cambrian explosion of life that followed — the period when complex, multicellular organisms began to diversify and spread across the planet.
When Caltech geologist Joe Kirschvink coined the term Snowball Earth in 1989 — merging ideas that some geologists, climate physicists and planetary chemists had been thinking about for decades — many earth scientists were skeptical that these cataclysmic events could really have occurred. But with mounting evidence in support of the theory and new data that help pin down the timing of events, more scientists have warmed up to the idea.
Paul Hoffman, a geologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, has helped pioneer Snowball Earth research over the past 25 years. Among other things, he amassed 50 months’ worth of fieldwork in Namibia, where he gathered evidence of ancient glacial activity in rocks that are interspersed with limestone. Since limestone tends to form in the warmest parts of the ocean, this sandwich-like pattern supports the idea that glaciers covered all of the Earth, cold as well as warm spots, during Snowball Earth episodes. Knowable spoke with Hoffman, who recounts his life work in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, about the evolution of the Snowball Earth theory and what questions remain. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The name describes its appearance from outer space — a glistening white ball. The ice surface is mostly coated with frost and tiny ice crystals that settled out of the cold dry air, which is far below freezing everywhere. Gale-force winds howl in low latitudes. Beneath the floating ice shelf, a dark and briny ocean is continually stirred by tides and turbulent eddies generated by geothermal heat slowly entering from the ocean floor.
Geologists were struggling to understand what they saw in the geologic record — that not too long before the first appearance of complex life, there was unmistakable evidence of glaciation even in the warmest areas of the Earth. Geologists had a very difficult time understanding how this was possible.
The deposits that glaciers leave behind are very distinctive. They look like cement that has been dumped out of a cement truck. These Snowball ice sheets would have flowed from the continents out onto the ocean, so we have a lot of deposits that formed in the marine environment where you get what are known as dropstones: pebbles or boulders that are out of place. Very often, you see structures related to the impact, as if the stone was somehow dropped and then plunked into the underlying sediment. It’s difficult to imagine what, other than floating ice, could have possibly transported this debris; trees, which can carry soil and stones out to sea in their roots, had not yet evolved.