Karoo Ice Age

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Timeline of glaciations (Ice Ages), shown in blue.

The Karoo Ice Age from 360–260 million years ago (Mya) was the second major ice age of the Phanerozoic Eon. It is named after the glacial tills found in the Karoo region of South Africa, where evidence for this ice age was first clearly identified.

The tectonic assembly of the continents of Euramerica (later with the Uralian orogeny, into Laurasia) and Gondwana into Pangaea, in the Hercynian-Alleghany Orogeny, made a major continental land mass within the Antarctic region, and the closure of the Rheic Ocean and Iapetus Ocean saw disruption of warm-water currents in the Panthalassa Ocean and Paleotethys Sea, which led to progressive cooling of summers, and the snowfields accumulating in winters, causing mountainous alpine glaciers to grow, and then spread out of highland areas, making continental glaciers which spread to cover much of Gondwana.

At least two major periods of glaciation have been discovered:

  • The first glacial period was associated with the Mississippian Period (359.2–318.1 Mya): ice sheets expanded from a core in southern Africa and South America.
  • The second glacial period was associated with the Pennsylvanian Period (318.1–299 Mya); ice sheets expanded from a core in Australia and India.

The extent of glaciation in Antarctica is not exactly known, due to its present ice sheet.

Causes of the Karoo Ice Age[edit]

Glacial striations formed by Karoo Ice Age glaciers in the Witmarsum Colony, Paraná Basin, Paraná, Brazil

The evolution of land plants with the onset of the Devonian Period, began a long-term increase in planetary oxygen levels. Large tree ferns, growing to 20 m high, were secondarily dominant to the large arborescent lycopods (30–40 m high) of the Carboniferous coal forests that flourished in equatorial swamps stretching from Appalachia to Poland, and later on the flanks of the Urals. Oxygen levels reached up to 35%, and global carbon dioxide got below the 300 parts per million level, which is today associated with glacial periods. This reduction in the greenhouse effect was coupled with lignin and cellulose (as tree trunks and other vegetation debris) accumulating and being buried in the great Carboniferous Coal Measures. The reduction of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would be enough to begin the process of changing polar climates, leading to cooler summers which could not melt the previous winter's snow accumulations. The growth in snowfields to 6 m deep would create sufficient pressure to convert the lower levels to ice.

Earth's increased planetary albedo produced by the expanding ice sheets would lead to positive feedback loops, spreading the ice sheets still further, until the process hit limit. Falling global temperatures would eventually limit plant growth, and the rising levels of oxygen would increase the frequency of fire-storms because damp plant matter could burn. Both these effects return carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, reversing the "snowball" effect and forcing greenhouse warming, with CO2 levels rising to 300 ppm in the following Permian period. Over a longer period the evolution of termites, whose stomachs provided an anoxic environment for methanogenic lignin-digesting bacteria, prevented further burial of carbon, returning carbon to the air as the greenhouse gas methane.

Once these factors brought a halt and a small reversal in the spread of ice sheets, the lower planetary albedo resulting from the fall in size of the glaciated areas would have been enough for warmer summers and winters and thus limit the depth of snowfields in areas from which the glaciers expanded. Rising sea levels produced by global warming drowned the large areas of flatland where previously anoxic swamps assisted in burial and removal of carbon (as coal). With a smaller area for deposition of carbon, more carbon dioxide was returned to the atmosphere, further warming the planet. By 250 Mya, planet Earth had returned to a percentage of oxygen similar to that found today.

The effects of the Karoo Ice Age[edit]

The rising levels of oxygen in the Karoo Ice Age had major effects upon evolution of plants and animals. Higher oxygen concentration (and accompanying higher atmospheric pressure) enabled energetic metabolic processes which encouraged evolution of large land-dwelling vertebrates and flight, with the dragonfly-like Meganeura, an aerial predator, with a wingspan of 60 to 75 cm.

The harmless stocky-bodied and armoured millipede-like Arthropleura was 1.8 m long, and the semiterrestrial Hibbertopterid eurypterids were perhaps as large, and some scorpions reached 50 or 70 cm.

The rising levels of oxygen also led to the evolution of greater fire resistance in vegetation and ultimately to the evolution of flowering plants. Genetic studies have shown this was when angiosperms separated from cycads and gymnosperms.[citation needed]

In addition, the Karoo Ice Age has unique sedimentary sequences called cyclothems. These were produced by the repeated alterations of marine and nonmarine environments.

See also[edit]

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