Evidence Upholds Snowball Earth Theory That Our Planet Rapidly Froze Over 700 Million Years Ago

An ice glacier in Argentina. During this rapid freeze, ice glaciers quickly enclosed the planet. Walter Diaz/AFP/Getty Images

A recent analysis found evidence to support the idea of a rapid planetary freeze, suggesting that around 717 million years ago Earth transitioned into a deep freeze in only a matter of a few thousand years, which is surprisingly fast in geological terms.

The study, published online in Geology this spring, is an analysis of rock sequences unearthed in Ethiopia. The rocks called "diamicities" could only have been formed by glacial activity as a result of boulders that would have been transported by glaciers. They also formed with some aid from microbial marine organisms. This combination means that the rocks formed in a cold setting that was warm not much earlier, suggesting that ancient Ethiopia went from a warm climate to an ice climate with little to no time in between, Science Mag reported. Scientists suggest this freeze could have taken between 1,000 and 100,000 years, from start to finish.

Most importantly, the rocks date back to over 700 million years old. This puts their formation right around the same time as when computer models have placed this quick planetary freeze. However, this one of few pieces of concrete geological evidence with accurate dating to support this scientific hypothesis.

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"Given how crazy the planet's climate must have been to bring about a snowball Earth, this positive test for the hypothesis is surprising," said Scott Maclennan, a Ph.D. student studying geology at Princeton University, and one of the study researchers, Science Mag reported.

Scientists believe that during this period of time, global temperatures fell so low that glaciers reached all the way to the equator. This would have killed most life on Earth, sparing some microbial life and limiting it to the oceans, EcoWatch reported.

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An ice age is described as a period where Earth experiences far lower global temperatures than average and a global expansion of thick glaciers, History.com reported. This period can last for hundreds of millions of years. These glaciers are propelled forward by the weight of snow that can accumulate on them, helping them to spread around the globe.

Most ice ages happen slowly over an extended period of time, lasting longer than a few thousand years. However, in this case, the researchers believe that something known as the ice-albedo feedback loop may have driven the planet to become nearly enclosed in ice far more rapidly. This loop hypothesis suggests that sunlight would have been reflected off the ice on the planet, even driving down global temperatures and expediting the growth of further ice. As a result, the planet froze over shockingly fast.