250-mln-yr volcanic shutdown may have led to ’snowball Earth’

May 11th, 2009 - 12:44 pm ICT by ANI  

London, May 11 (ANI): In a new study, scientists have determined that a 250-million-year shutdown of volcanic activity which is thought to have occurred early in Earth’s history may be what turned the planet into a glacier-covered snowball, and give rise to our oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Previous studies have noted that very little volcanic material has been dated to between 2.45 and 2.2 billion years ago, but it was widely assumed the gap would vanish as more samples were dated.

Now, according to a report in New Scientist, an analysis of thousands of zircon minerals collected from all seven continents indicates that the gap may be real after all.

Zircons provide a record of past volcanic activity, as the date they were formed can be calculated from the radioactive isotopes they contain.

The failure of so many samples from all over the world to fill the gap suggests there was a major slowdown in the planet’s volcanic activity during this period, according to Kent Condie of New Mexico Tech in Socorro, who led the study.

“Volcanism didn’t shut off, but it became much, much less widespread during this time,” he added.

“The lull could be tied to a pause in the motion of tectonic plates, which drives much of Earth’s volcanic activity,” said Condie.

Computer simulations suggest this motion, which now takes place continuously, would have been intermittent early in Earth’s history, when the planet’s interior was hotter and less viscous, so less able to drag the plates.

The lull may in turn be a major factor behind a suspected “snowball Earth” event between 2.4 and 2.3 billion years ago, when much of the planet is thought to have been covered with ice.

With no new carbon dioxide (CO2) being spewed from volcanoes, its concentration in the atmosphere would have declined, leading to global cooling.

The lull could also be behind the rise in atmospheric oxygen that is known to have taken place around 2.4 billion years ago.

Prior to the lull, any oxygen produced by marine microorganisms was consumed in reactions with iron in the ocean.

With no fresh volcanic material to replenish the iron, oxygen would have been free to build up in the atmosphere.

This in turn could have further cooled the Earth by removing methane, another powerful greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. (ANI)

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