The snowball Earth hypothesis predicts that low-latitude glaciation lasted millions of years while CO2 built up to critical levels to culminate in catastrophic deglaciation in a supergreenhouse climate. The Gaskiers Formation of eastern Newfoundland (Canada) has been attributed to a snowball glaciation event, but the lack of robust paleomagnetic data and precise geochronological constraints has precluded tests of the hypothesis. Here we present high-precision U-Pb zircon geochronology (chemical abrasion–isotope dilution–thermal ionization mass spectrometry) from eight tuffs from multiple distant stratigraphic sections that bracket glacial diamictites and the first appearance of large Ediacaran fossils. Including internal error, deposition of the Gaskiers diamictite on the Avalon Peninsula is constrained to have been between 580.90 ± 0.40 and 579.88 ± 0.44 Ma, and the Trinity diamictite on Bonavista Peninsula was deposited between 579.63 ± 0.15 and 579.24 ± 0.17 Ma. Assuming approximately synchronous deglaciation, these results imply a maximum duration for deposition of the Trinity diamictite of ≤340 k.y.; this is inconsistent with the multimillion year duration predicted by the snowball Earth hypothesis. Our geochronologic data also constrain the first appearance datum of Ediacaran fossils to <9.5 m.y. after the Gaskiers glaciation. Thus, despite existing paleomagnetic constraints that indicate that marine ice sheets extended to low to middle latitudes, it appears that Earth narrowly escaped a third Neoproterozoic snowball glaciation just prior to the late Ediacaran expansion of metazoan ecosystems.

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