Earth'S Glacial Record And Its Tectonic Setting

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Journal Article: Earth'S Glacial Record And Its Tectonic Setting

Glaciations have occurred episodically at different time intervals and for different durations in Earth's history. Ice covers have formed in a wide range of plate tectonic and structural settings but the bulk of Earth's glacial record can be shown to have been deposited and preserved in basins within extensional settings. In such basins, source area uplift and basin subsidence fulfill the tectonic preconditions for the initiation of glaciation and the accomodation and preservation of glaciclastic sediments. Tectonic setting, in particular subsidence rates, also dictates the type of glaciclastic facies and facies successions that are deposited. Many pre-Pleistocene glaciated basins commonly contain well-defined tectonostratigraphic successions recording the interplay of tectonics and sedimentation; traditional climatostratigraphic approaches involving interpretation in terms of either ice advance/retreat cycles or glacio-eustatic sea-level change require revision. The direct record of continental glaciation in Earth history, in the form of classically-recognised continental glacial landforms and "tillites", is meagre; it is probable that more than 95% of the volume of preserved "glacial" strata are glacially-influenced marine deposits that record delivery of large amounts of glaciclastic sediment to offshore basins. This flux has been partially or completely reworked by "normal" sedimentary processes such that the record of glaciation and climate change is recorded in marine successions and is difficult to decipher. The dominant "glacial" facies in the rock record are subaqueous debris flow diamictites and turbidites recording the selective preservation of poorly-sorted glaciclastic sediment deposited in deep water basins by sediment gravity flows. However, these facies are also typical of many non-glacial settings, especially volcanically-influenced environments; numerous Archean and Proterozoic diamictites, described in the older literature as tillites, have no clearly established glacial parentage. The same remarks apply to many successions of laminated and thin-bedded facies interpreted as "varvites". Despite suggestions of much lower values of solar luminosity (the weak young sun hypothesis), the stratigraphic record of Archean glaciations is not extensive and may be the result of non-preservation. However, the effects of very different Archean global tectonic regimes and much higher geothermal heat flows, combined with a Venus-like atmosphere warmed by elevated levels of CO2, cannot be ruled out. The oldest unambiguous glacial succession in Earth history appears to be the Early Proterozoic Gowganda Formation of the Huronian Supergroup in Ontario; the age of this event is not well-constrained but glaciation coincided with regional rifting, and may be causally related to, oxygenation of Earth's atmosphere just after 2300 Ma. New evidence that oxygenation is tectonically, not biologically driven, stresses the intimate relationship between plate tectonics, evolution of the atmosphere and glaciation. Global geochemical controls, such as elevated atmospheric CO2 levels, may be responsible for a long mid-Proterozoic non-glacial interval after 2000 Ma that was terminated by the Late Proterozoic glaciations just after 800 Ma. A persistent theme in both Late Proterozoic and Phanerozoic glaciations is the adiabatic effect of tectonic uplift, either along collisional margins or as a result of passive margin uplifts in areas of extended crust, as the trigger for glaciation; the process is reinforced by global geochemical feedback, principally the drawdown of atmospheric CO2 and Milankovitch "astronomical" forcing but these are unlikely, by themselves, to inititiate glaciation. The same remarks apply to late Cenozoic glaciations. Late Proterozoic glacially-influenced strata occur on all seven continents and fall into two tectonostratigraphic types. In the first category are thick sucessions of turbidites and mass flows deposited along active, compressional plate margins recording a protracted and complex phase of supercontinent assembly between 800 and 550 Ma. Local cordilleran glaciations of volcanic peaks is indicated. Many deposits are preserved within mobile belts that record the subduction of interior oceans now preserved as "welds" between different cratons. Discrimination between glacially-influenced and non-glacial, volcaniclastic mass flow successions continues to be problematic. The second tectonostratigraphic category of Late Proterozoic glacial strata includes successions of glacially-influenced, mostly marine strata deposited along rifted, extensional plate margins. The oldest (Sturtian) glaciclastic sediments result from the break-out of Laurentia from the Late Proterozoic supercontinent starting around 750 Ma along its "palaeo-Pacific" margin with a later (Marinoan) phase of rifting at about 650 Ma. "Passive margin" uplifts and the generation of "adiabatic" ice covers on uplifted crustal blocks triggered widespread glaciation along the "palaeo-Pacific" margin of North America and in Australia. A major phase of rifting along the opposite ("palaeo-Atlantic") margin of Laurentia occurred after 650 Ma and is similarly recorded by glaciclastic strata in basins preserved around the margins of the present day North Atlantic Ocean. Glaciation of the west African platform after 650 Ma is closely related to collision of the West African and Guyanan cratons and uplift of the orogenic belt; the same process, involving uplift around the northern and western margins of the Afro-Arabian platform subsequently triggered Late Ordovician glaciation at about 440 Ma when the south polar region lay over North Africa. Early Silurian glaciation in Bolivia and Brazil was followed by a non-glacial episode and renewed Late Devonian glaciation of northern Brazil and Bolivia. The latter event may have resulted from rotation of Gondwana under the South Pole combined with active orogenesis along the western margin of the supercontinent. Hercynian uplift along the western margin of South America caused by the collision and docking of "Chilinia" at about 350 Ma (Late Tournasian-Early Visean) was the starting point of a long Late Palaeozoic glacial record that terminated at about 255 Ma (Kungurian-Kazanian) in western Australia. The arrival of large landmasses at high latitude may have been an important precondition for ice growth. Strong Namurian uplift around virtually the entire palaeo-Pacific rim of Gondwana culminated in glaciation of the interior of the supercontinent during the latest Westphalian (c. 300 Ma). There is a clear picture of plate margin compression and propagation of "far field" stresses to the plate interior allowing preservation of glacially-influenced strata in newly-rifted intracratonic basins. Many basins show a "steer's head" style of infill architecture recording successive phases of subsidence and overstepping of younger strata during basin subsidence and expansion. Exploration for oil and gas in Gondwanan glaciated basins is currently a major stimulus to understanding the relationship between tectonics and sedimentation. Warm Mesozoic palaeoclimates do not rule out the existence of restricted ice covers in the interiors of continental landmasses at high palaeolatitudes (e.g. Siberia, Antarctica) but there is as yet, no direct geological record of their existence. The most likely record of glaciers is contained in Late Jurassic and early Cretaceous strata. In any event, these ice masses are unlikely to have had any marked effect on global sea levels and alternative explanations should perhaps be sought for 4th order, so-called "glacio-eustatic" changes in sea level, inferred from Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous strata. The growth of extensive Northern Hemisphere ice sheets in Plio-Pleistocene time (c. 2.5 Ma) was the culmination of a long global climatic deterioration that began sometime after 60 Ma during the late Tertiary. Tectonic uplift of areas such as the Tibetan Plateau and plate tectonic reorganizations have been identified as first-order controls. Initiation of the East Antarctic ice sheet, at about 36 Ma, is the result of the progressive thermal isolation of the continent combined with uplift along the Transantarctic Mountains. In the Northern Hemisphere, the upwarping of extensive passive margin plateaux around the margins of the newly-rifted North Atlantic may have amplified global climatic changes and set the scene for the growth of continental ice sheets after 2.5 Ma. Ice sheet growth and decay was driven by complexly interrelated changes in ocean circulation, Milankovitch orbital forcing and global geochemical cycles. It is arguable whether continental glaciations of the Northern Hemisphere, and the evolution of hominids, would have occurred without the necessary precondition of tectonic uplift.

N. Eyles

Published Journal 
Earth-Science Reviews, 1993



N. Eyles. 1993. Earth'S Glacial Record And Its Tectonic Setting. Earth-Science Reviews. (!) .