Encyclopedia of Astrobiology

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Huronian Glaciation

  • Andrey BekkerEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27833-4_742-4


Paleoproterozoic Ice ages Snowball earth Rise of atmospheric oxygen 



The Huronian glaciation is the oldest series of protracted climatic refrigeration events that extensively affected Earth. It occurred between 2.45 and 2.22 Ga in association with the rise of atmospheric oxygen. Three glaciations of that series, the classical Huronian ice ages, are bracketed in time between ~2.45 and 2.32 Ga; the fourth event, recognized so far only in South Africa, is ~2.22 Ga in age. During these events, glaciers covered continents, extended to low latitudes, and reached to sea level. The ice ages were followed by a protracted time interval with greenhouse (warm and humid) conditions. The name is derived from the Huronian Supergroup exposed on the north shore of Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada, between Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, and Cobalt.


The Huronian glacial deposits were first recognized by Coleman (1907) in the northeastern part of the Huronian Basin in Ontario, Canada; just a year after a poorly sorted conglomerate with scattered pebbles and cobbles, some striated and faceted, was described in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa by Rogers (1906), who interpreted it to be glacial in origin. Almost 40 years later, Pettijohn (1943) described tillite in a correlative to the Huronian Supergroup succession of Michigan, USA. Young (1970) inferred glacial influence on Paleoproterozoic successions in Wyoming, Michigan, Quebec, and Nunavut. Shortly thereafter, Paleoproterozoic glacial deposits were for the first time recognized in Western Australia (Trendall 1976) and described in more details in South Africa (Visser 1971). Although the presence of Paleoproterozoic glacial deposits in Fennoscandia was originally discussed by Eskola (1919), they were not described and documented in detail until recently (Marmo and Ojakangas 1984; Strand and Laajoki 1993). In Antarctica, the 2.45–2.5 Ga Ruker Series contains diamictite above thick banded iron formation associated with mafic volcanics (Mikhalsky et al. 2006; Phillips et al. 2006), offering a comparison with the Meteorite Bore Member of the Turee Creek Group in the Hamersley Province of Western Australia (see below). All other reported cases of Paleoproterozoic glacial deposits were either not confirmed by subsequent sedimentologic studies or turned out to be significantly younger and not correlative with the Huronian glaciation.


Paleoproterozoic glacial deposits are now confirmed in a number of basins in North America (Fig. 1), Western Australia (Meteorite Bore Member of the Turee Creek Group), South Africa (Pretoria and Postmasburg Groups), and Fennoscandia (Sarioli informal group in Finland and in Karelia and Kola Peninsula, Russia). Evidence for glaciation is plentiful in these successions and includes varves with dropstones; striated, flat-iron-shaped, and faceted pebbles; striations in the underlying basement; exotic stones in diamictite (Fig. 2); and extensive development of diamictite not controlled by synsedimentary faults. The Huronian Supergroup contains three glacial units (Fig. 3), whereas other successions contain only one or two, making intra- and intercontinental lithostratigraphic correlations difficult. It seems likely that four glacial events occurred in the Paleoproterozoic, but their regional or global extent is not well constrained. Paleomagnetic data are as yet scarce; however, they suggest low-latitude position of glaciated landmasses (e.g., Evans et al. 1997), whereas sedimentologic data indicates that ice extended to sea level in these regions (e.g., Young 2004).
Fig. 1

Location of Paleoproterozoic glacial deposits in North America and Fennoscandia (Modified after Young 2004). Abbreviations represent stratigraphic units which contain glacial deposits. S Snowy Pass Supergroup, Medicine Bow Mountains, Wyoming, Ch Chocolay Group, Michigan, Hn Huronian Supergroup, Ontario, C Chibougamau Formation, Quebec, Hw Hurwitz Group, Nunavut, K Karelian Supergroup, Fennoscandia

Fig. 2

Sedimentary features of Paleoproterozoic successions indicating glacial influence and postglacial warm and humid climate associated with oxygenated atmosphere. (a) Dropstone in finely laminated mudstone of the Pecors Formation, Huronian Supergroup, north of Quirke Lake; hammer for scale is 40 cm long. (b) Large dropstone in laminated matrix of the Gowganda Formation in Cobalt area; hammer is 70 cm long. (c) Dropstone of granite in finely laminated matrix of the Gowganda Formation, north of Elliott Lake; coin is 2.8 cm in diameter. (d) Red sandstone sandwiched between glacial diamictites of the Gowganda Formation, north of Elliott Lake, person for scale. (e) Molds of gypsum in red-colored siltstone from postglacial succession in Michigan (HW 480; Kona Dolomite); coin is 2.8 cm in diameter for scale. (f) Cross-bedded red-colored mudstone-siltstone in the upper part of the Gowganda Formation deposited in oxygenated deltaic setting, Cobalt area; hammer for scale is 70 cm long

Fig. 3

Age-calibrated correlation of Paleoproterozoic strata from North America and southern Africa (updated from Rasmussen et al. 2013 with U/Pb baddeleyite age from Gumsley et al. 2015; multiple S isotope data and detrital pyrite and uraninite description from Johnson et al. 2013, 2014; and evidence for redbeds from Schröder et al. 2011). Dates from Rasmussen et al. (2013) for tuff beds are in bold; also shown are age constraints from previous studies (see Rasmussen et al. 2013 for references) and the age of the Copper Cliff rhyolite at the base of the Huronian Supergroup (in italics; Ketchum et al. 2013). Values in blue adjacent to marine carbonate units represent their carbon isotope compositions. MIF and MDF are mass-independent and mass-dependent fractionations of sulfur isotopes, respectively

Large igneous provinces were extensively emplaced before (2.5–2.45 Ga) and after (ca. 2.22 Ga) the Huronian glaciation, but with the exception of the ca. 2.32 Ga superplume event, the 2.45–2.22 Ga time interval is largely devoid of magmatic activity (cf. Partin et al. 2014). Tuff beds dated in the Huronian Supergroup, Canada, and the Pretoria Group, South Africa (Rasmussen et al. 2013), have finally bracketed the age of the Paleoproterozoic ice ages (Fig. 3). Three Huronian glaciations are all between ca. 2.45 and 2.32 Ga in age, whereas the youngest glaciation recorded by the upper Pretoria Group is ca. 2.22 Ga in age. These data allow two tantalizing implications: (1) The Huronian ice ages lasted long; (2) there was a glacial event at ca. 2.22 Ga in South Africa, which has not yet been recognized anywhere else in the world. The Makganyene Diamictite of the Postmasburg Group of the Griqualand West basin (paleomagnetically pinned to low paleolatitudes; Evans et al. 1997) was recently geochronologically bracketed between ~2.46 and 2.43 Ga in age (see Fig. 3; Gumsley et al. 2015), potentially providing the best age constraint for the beginning of the GOE. Correlation of the glacial diamictite of the Meteorite Bore Member of the Turee Creek Group with the Huronian glacials remains uncertain; considering that the retro-arc setting of the Turee Creek Group evolved from a conformably underlying back-arc basin containing 2.5–2.45 Ga banded iron formations (e.g., Krapež 1996), the most parsimonious interpretation is that it represents the oldest Huronian ice age.

In contrast to Neoproterozoic glacially influenced successions, carbonates with negative carbon isotope values directly overlying glacial diamictite are present only above the second glacial diamictite in the Huronian Supergroup and correlative glacial horizons elsewhere. There are carbonates with negative carbon isotope values immediately underlying the glacial diamictite of the Polisarka Sedimentary Formation on the Kola Peninsula of Russia, but correlation of this glacial diamictite with the Huronian glacials and its age is uncertain (Brasier et al. 2013). Sequences immediately underlying Paleoproterozoic glacial diamictites include banded iron formations in Western Australia and South Africa and conglomerates with detrital pyrites and uraninites in North America and Fennoscandia, whereas overlying units contain red beds and sulfate evaporites (Figs. 2 and 4). Combined, these and other proxies for atmospheric and ocean redox state indicate a transition from the reduced to an oxygenated atmosphere and ocean during the Huronian glaciations (Bekker et al. 2004). It is generally accepted that the atmosphere before ca. 2.45 Ga was reducing and contained significant (≥1,000 ppm) levels of methane, an effective greenhouse gas. Rise of atmospheric oxygen in the early Paleoproterozoic decreased methane levels in the atmosphere and initiated climatic cooling leading to glaciation (Bekker et al. 2005). If this interpretation is correct, the Huronian glaciation represents a response of Earth system to the rise of atmospheric oxygen in association with carbon dioxide replacing methane as a main greenhouse gas. Lithologies overlying Paleoproterozoic glacial deposits suggest an extended period of enhanced chemical weathering in the aftermath of the Huronian glaciations, which could reflect warm and humid climate and acidic groundwaters during the Great Oxidation Event and Lomagundi carbon isotope excursion (Konhauser et al. 2011; Bekker and Holland 2012) (Fig. 5).
Fig. 4

Secular carbon isotope variations in seawater and redox indicators for the oxidation state of the early Paleoproterozoic atmosphere-ocean system (Modified from Bekker and Holland 2012). Four blue vertical bars mark Paleoproterozoic glacial events; the dashed secular carbon isotope curve between 2.5 and 2.22 Ga emphasizes the uncertainty in this part of the curve, the dashed bar for marine sulfate evaporites after ca. 2.07 Ga indicates that sulfate evaporites again became rare in the Paleoproterozoic and Mesoproterozoic record after that time. Deposition of iron formations and Mn-rich deposits indicates anoxic conditions in deep waters. While deposition of iron formations does not necessarily require atmospheric oxygen and can be mediated by anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria, Mn oxidation requires significant levels of atmospheric oxygen

Fig. 5

Stratigraphic column of the Huronian Supergroup in Ontario, Canada that contains three glacial horizons and overlying units indicating extreme degree of weathering. Also shown are atmospheric redox indicators, age constraints, and environmental and tectonic changes (Modified from Bekker et al. 2006 and Rasmussen et al. 2013)

See Also

References and Further Reading

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Earth SciencesUniversity of California, RiversideRiversideUSA