New constraints on equatorial temperatures during a Late Neoproterozoic snowball Earth glaciation
Intense glaciation during the end of Cryogenian time (∼635 million years ago) marks the coldest climate state in Earth history – a time when glacial deposits accumulated at low, tropical paleolatitudes. The leading idea to explain these deposits, the snowball Earth hypothesis, predicts globally frozen surface conditions and subfreezing temperatures, with global climate models placing surface temperatures in the tropics between −20 °C and −60 °C. However, precise paleosurface temperatures based upon geologic constraints have remained elusive and the global severity of the glaciation undetermined. Here we make new geologic observations of tropical periglacial, aeolian and fluvial sedimentary structures formed during the end-Cryogenian, Marinoan glaciation in South Australia; these observations allow us to constrain ancient surface temperatures. We find periglacial sand wedges and associated deformation suggest that ground temperatures were sufficiently warm to allow for ductile deformation of a sandy regolith. The wide range of deformation structures likely indicate the presence of a paleoactive layer that penetrated 2–4 m below the ground surface. These observations, paired with a model of ground temperature forced by solar insolation, constrain the local mean annual surface temperature to within a few degrees of freezing. This temperature constraint matches well with our observations of fluvial deposits, which require temperatures sufficiently warm for surface runoff. Although this estimate coincides with one of the coldest near sea-level tropical temperatures in Earth history, if these structures represent peak Marinaon glacial conditions, they do not support the persistent deep freeze of the snowball Earth hypothesis. Rather, surface temperatures near 0 °C allow for regions of seasonal surface melting, atmosphere–ocean coupling and possible tropical refugia for early metazoans. If instead these structures formed during glacial onset or deglaciation, then they have implications for the timescale and character for the transition into or out of a snowball state.