Hexbyte Glen Cove Bacterial bloom as the Earth thawed thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Bacterial bloom as the Earth thawed

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Changes in Earth’s environment and lifeforms during the Snowball Earth and its aftermath 650-630 million years ago. Black arrows show changes. The appearance of a supercontinent caused a decrease in ocean volcanism, which resulted in a decrease in atmospheric CO2 and the Snowball Earth. Red words show new findings in this paper. Credit: Kunio Kaiho

Around 650 million years ago, the Earth entered into the Marinoan glaciation that saw the entire planet freeze. The “Snowball Earth” impeded the evolution of life. But as it warmed, biotic life began to flourish. A research team from Tohoku University has analyzed rock samples from China to tell us more about this transition.

Some researchers hypothesize that ice sheets enveloped the earth during the Marinoan glaciation (650–535 million years ago) in what is dubbed the “Snowball Earth.” The glaciation also impacted the climate and chemical compositions of the oceans, restraining the evolution of early life. Yet, as the earth warmed, and the Ediacaran period dawned, biotic life began to evolve.

A research team from Tohoku University has unveiled more about the evolutionary process of the Marinoan-Ediacaran transition. Using biomarker evidence, they revealed possible photosynthetic activity during the Marinoan glaciation. This was followed by photosynthetic organisms and bacteria entering a period of low productivity. However, as eukaryotes expanded during the early Ediacaran period, they blossomed.

Dr. Kunio Kaiho, who co-authored a paper with Atena Shizuya, said, “Our findings help clarify the evolution of primitive to complex animals in the aftermath of the Snowball Earth.” Their paper online was published in the journal Global and Planetary Change on August 8, 2021.

The late Neoproterozoic era (650–530 million years ago) witnessed one of the most severe ice ages in the Earth’s 4.6-billion-year history. Researchers believe that ice sheets covered the entire since glaciogenic units, such as ice-rafted debris, are distributed globally. Overlaying these glaciogenic formations are cap carbonates. These precipitate under warm conditions and therefore suggest that the glacial environment changed rapidly into a greenhouse environment.

The Snowball Earth hypothesis purports the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration controlled the change from a frozen state to an ice-free state. Ice sheet-covered oceans prevented the dissolution of carbon dioxide into seawater during the Marinoan ice age, meaning greenhouse gas concentration, emitted by volcanic activity, increased gradually. Once the extreme greenhouse effect kicked in, glaciers melted and excess carbon dioxide precipitated on glaciogenic sediments as cap carbonates.

Whilst the Snowball Earth theory explains the wide distributions of glacial formations, it fails to shed light on the survival of living organisms. To counteract this, some researchers argue that sedimentary organic molecules, a molecular clock, and fossils from the late Neoproterozoic era are evidence that primitive eukaryotes such as sponges survived this severe ice age. Alternative models also propose that an ice-free open sea existed during the glaciation and acted as an oasis for marine life.

But what is understood is that the Marinoan glaciation and the succeeding extreme climatic transition likely had a marked impact on the biosphere. Shortly after the ice age, the Lantian biota, the earliest-known complex macroscopic multicellular eukaryotes, emerged. The Lantian biota includes macrofossils that are phylogenetically uncertain but morphologically and taxonomically diverse. Meanwhile, pre-Marinoan species have simple body plans with limited taxonomic variety.

Bacteria and eukaryote biomarkers demonstrate that bacteria dominated before the glaciation, whereas steranes/hopanes ratios illustrate that eukaryotes dominated just before it. However, the relationship between the biosphere changes and the Marinoan glaciation is unclear.

In 2011, Kaiho and his team traveled to Three Gorges, China under the guidance of China University of Science’s Dr. Jinnan Tong to take sedimentary rock samples from the deeper outcrops of marine sedimentary rocks. From 2015 onwards, Shizuya and Kaiho analyzed the biomarkers of algae, photosynthetic activity, bacteria, and eukaryotes from the rock samples.

They found photosynthetic activity based on n-C17 + n-C19 alkanes for algae and pristane + phytane during the Marinoan . Hopanes within the early and late carbonate deposition showed and other bacteria entering a state of low productivity before recovering. And steranes from carbonates and mudstones after the cap carbonate deposition from the early Ediacaran period indicated the expansion of eukaryotes. The expansion of eukaryotes corresponded to the Lantian biota being morphologically diverse when compared to pre-Marinoan species.

Kaiho believes we are one step closer to understanding the evolutionary process that occurred before and after Snowball Earth. “The environmental stress of closed ocean environments for the atmosphere followed by high temperatures around 60°C may have produced more complex animals in the aftermath.” Their findings show that bacterial recovery preceded eukaryotes’ domination.

Kaiho’s team is doing further studies to clarify the relationship between climate change and the biosphere in other locations. They are also studying the relationship between atmospheric oxygen increases and animal evolution from the late Cryogenian to early Cambrian (650 to 500 million years ago).

More information:
Atena Shizuya et al, Marine biomass changes during and after the Neoproterozoic Marinoan global glaciation, Global and Planetary Change (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2021.103610

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Experiment evaluates the effect of human decisions on climate reconstructions thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Experiment evaluates the effect of human decisions on climate reconstructions

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

The first double-blind experiment analyzing the role of human decision-making in climate reconstructions has found that it can lead to substantially different results.

The experiment, designed and run by researchers from the University of Cambridge, had multiple research groups from around the world use the same raw tree-ring data to reconstruct temperature changes over the past 2,000 years.

While each of the reconstructions clearly showed that recent warming due to is unprecedented in the past two thousand years, there were notable differences in variance, amplitude and sensitivity, which can be attributed to decisions made by the researchers who built the individual reconstructions.

Professor Ulf Büntgen from the University of Cambridge, who led the research, said that the results are “important for transparency and truth—we believe in our data, and we’re being open about the decisions that any has to make when building a reconstruction or model.”

To improve the reliability of reconstructions, the researchers suggest that teams make multiple reconstructions at once so that they can be seen as an ensemble. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Information from tree rings is the main way that researchers reconstruct past climate conditions at annual resolutions: as distinctive as a fingerprint, the rings formed in trees outside the tropics are annually precise growth layers. Each ring can tell us something about what conditions were like in a particular growing season, and by combining data from many trees of different ages, scientists are able to reconstruct past climate conditions going back hundreds and even thousands of years.

Reconstructions of past climate conditions are useful as they can place current climate conditions or future projections in the context of past natural variability. The challenge with a climate reconstruction is that—absent a —there is no way to confirm it is correct.

“While the information contained in remains constant, humans are the variables: they may use different techniques or choose a different subset of data to build their reconstruction,” said Büntgen, who is based at Cambridge’s Department of Geography, and is also affiliated with the CzechGlobe Centre in Brno, Czech Republic. “With any reconstruction, there’s a question of uncertainty ranges: how certain you are about a certain result. A lot of work has gone into trying to quantify uncertainties in a statistical way, but what hasn’t been studied is the role of decision-making.

“It’s not the case that there is one single truth—every decision we make is subjective to a greater or lesser extent. Scientists aren’t robots, and we don’t want them to be, but it’s important to learn where the decisions are made and how they affect the outcome.”

Büntgen and his colleagues devised an experiment to test how decision-making affects climate reconstructions. They sent raw tree ring data to 15 research groups around the world and asked them to use it to develop the best possible large-scale climate reconstruction for in the Northern hemisphere over past 2000 years.

“Everything else was up to them—it may sound trivial, but this sort of experiment had never been done before,” said Büntgen.

Each of the groups came up with a different reconstruction, based on the decisions they made along the way: the data they chose or the techniques they used. For example, one group may have used instrumental target data from June, July and August, while another may have only used the mean of July and August only.

The main differences in the reconstructions were those of amplitude in the data: exactly how warm was the Medieval warming period, or how much cooler a particular summer was after a large volcanic eruption.

Büntgen stresses that each of the reconstructions showed the same overall trends: there were periods of warming in the 3rd century, as well as between the 10th and 12th century; they all showed abrupt summer cooling following clusters of large volcanic eruptions in the 6th, 15th and 19th century; and they all showed that the recent warming since the 20th and 21st century is unprecedented in the past 2000 years.

“You think if you have the start with the same data, you will end up with the same result, but climate reconstruction doesn’t work like that,” said Büntgen. “All the reconstructions point in the same direction, and none of the results oppose one another, but there are differences, which must be attributed to decision-making.”

So, how will we know whether to trust a particular climate in future? In a time where experts are routinely challenged, or dismissed entirely, how can we be sure of what is true? One answer may be to note each point where a decision is made, consider the various options, and produce multiple reconstructions. This would of course mean more work for climate scientists, but it could be a valuable check to acknowledge how decisions affect outcomes.

Another way to make climate reconstructions more robust is for groups to collaborate and view all their reconstructions together, as an ensemble. “In almost any , you can point to a single study or result that tells you what to hear,” he said. “But when you look at the body of scientific evidence, with all its nuances and uncertainties, you get a clearer overall picture.”

More information:
The influence of decision-making in tree ring-based climate reconstructions, Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-23627-6

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