Plate Tectonics May Have Caused ‘Snowball Earth,’ Study Finds

In a study published in Terra Nova, a UT Dallas geologist suggests that episodes of global cooling in the Earth’s past — a condition called ‘Snowball Earth’ — might have been triggered by the advent of plate tectonics. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

About 700 million years ago, the Earth experienced unusual episodes of global cooling that geologists refer to as Snowball Earth. Several theories have been proposed to explain what triggered this dramatic cool down, which occurred during a geological era called the Neoproterozoic.

In a new study published in the April issue of the journal Terra Nova, two geologists at the University of Texas at Dallas and UT Austin suggest that those major climate changes could be linked to one thing: the advent of plate tectonics. Plate tectonics is a theory formulated in the late 1960s that states the Earth’s crust and upper mantle — a layer called the lithosphere — is broken into moving pieces, or plates.

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These plates move very slowly — about as fast as your fingernails and hair grow — causing earthquakes, mountain ranges, and volcanoes. Dr. Robert Stern, professor of geosciences in UT Dallas’ School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and co-author of the study, said:

Geoscientists disagree about when the Earth changed from single lid to plate tectonics, with the plate fragmenting from one plate to two plates and so on to the present global system of seven major and many smaller plates. But Stern highlights geological and theoretical evidence that plate tectonics began between 800 million and 600 million years ago, and has published several articles arguing for this timing.

Plate techtonics led to Snowball Earth

In the new study, Stern and Dr. Nathaniel Miller, a research scientist in UT Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, provide new insights by suggesting that the onset of plate tectonics likely initiated the changes on Earth’s surface that led to Snowball Earth. They argue that plate tectonics is the event that can explain 22 theories that other scientists have advanced as triggers of the Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth. Stern explained:

The onset of plate tectonics should have disturbed the oceans and the atmosphere by redistributing continents, increasing explosive arc volcanism, and stimulating mantle plumes, Stern said, adding:

Provided by: University of Texas at Dallas [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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