The retreat of the ice covering “Snowball Earth” 700 million years ago might have been the key to the Cambrian explosion that seeded our planet with diverse forms of life. But the trigger may not have been the changes to the climate, but rather the release of phosphorus into the ocean.
During this time period, called the Cryogenian or Snowball Earth stage, the entire planet was covered in snow and ice, and the oceans may even have been frozen. Many researchers believe that the ice receded twice during this freezing period, first around 700 million years ago and then again around 635 million years ago. In a paper published in Nature this week, a team of researchers propose that these receding sheets released phosphorus into the oceans.
In the scheme offered by [Noah] Planavsky and his colleagues, the snowball ice sheets would, as their modern counterparts do, grind up continental rock that would release phosphorus when the glaciers retreated. That phosphorus would wash into the ocean, where it would fertilize algal blooms that could drive a surge in the production of organic matter and oxygen. And the added organic matter that settled into the mud on the ocean bottom would leave additional oxygen behind, eventually boosting atmospheric and oceanic oxygen. [ScienceNOW]