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The Cryogenian Ghaub Formation of Namibia – New insights into Neoproterozoic glaciations


Thilo Bechstädt, Hartmut Jäger, Andreas Rittersbacher, Bolko Schweisfurth, Guy Spence, Georg Werner, Maria Boni

Earth-Science Reviews 177 (2018) 678–714
The Neoproterozoic Cryogenian (‘Marinoan’) Ghaub Formation of northwestern Namibia represents an important founding pillar of the Snowball Earth hypothesis and its derivative, the Panglacial Earth hypothesis. These hypotheses assume oceans and continents covered by thick ice, even in the tropics, which caused a very distinct drop in eustatic sea-level. Over time, strongly increased CO2 contents of the atmosphere led to sudden ice melting, very substantial sea-level rise, and strong weathering on the continents associated with the deposition of cap carbonates in the newly ice-free oceans. The ongoing controversy about Snowball-type glaciations in Namibia and elsewhere is reviewed, and other hypotheses (Slushball Earth, Waterbelt Earth, Jormungand state of the Earth, Thin Ice state of the Earth, Zipper-Rift Earth, High-Obliquity Earth) are discussed. We prefer the term ‘Waterbelt Earth’ instead of the originally proposed ‘Waterbelt state’ because of the clearer contrast with ‘Snowball Earth’.
Because a great deal of information related to Cryogenian glaciations comes from the Ghaub Formation of northwestern Namibia, these hypotheses should be tested independently based on a time-equivalent depositional system. This analogue was found in the carbonate-dominated successions of the Otavi Mountainland (OML), northeastern Namibia, and is highly comparable with the successions in the well-investigated northwest of the country. An extreme eustatic sea-level drop caused by a global glaciation of oceans and continents and imposed on a carbonate platform or ramp such as the one in the OML would have led either to glacial cover or widespread subaerial exposure and extensive erosion, including deeply incised valleys. The presence of such features would strongly support the Snowball Earth hypotheses if tectonic effects did not play a major role. During the post- glacial transgression, distinct reworking of the carbonate platform/ramp surface would have occurred, leaving behind lag deposits, as well as infills of incised valleys with fluvial, reworked glacial, and marine deposits. The main objective of our research was to weigh and investigate the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed Snowball Earth model of glacially induced large-amplitude sea-level changes during Ghaub time, and to compare different models to obtain a rough estimate of the amount of glaciation.
The study area in the OML includes two different, age-equivalent facies realms: platform sedimentation in the Southern area without diamictites, and slope deposits, including Ghaub diamictites, in the Northern area. The southern, continuously shallow-marine area shows a shallowing-upward succession from the pre-glacial lower Auros Formation, often varve-like laminated shales formed below wave base, to metre-high columnar stromatolites and microbial mat-related carbonates with intervals of vertical tubes (degassing features) of the upper Auros Formation, overlain by cap carbonates of the Maieberg Formation. The columnar stromatolites and the microbial tubestone lithotypes were clearly deposited in the euphotic zone. Indications for tidal conditions or subaerial exposure were not recorded in this platform succession without unconformities. Neither dropstones, nor incised channels, nor transgressive lag deposits were observed. The facies changes from below storm wave base to the photic zone and finally a shallow subtidal zone is explained by a prolonged, modest sea-level fall, partly counterbalanced by subsidence, followed by a slow transgression.