The release of methane into the atmosphere through destabilization of clathrates is a positive feedback mechanism capable of amplifying global warming trends that may have operated several times in the geological past1, 2, 3. Such methane release is a hypothesized cause or amplifier for one of the most drastic global warming events in Earth history, the end of the Marinoan ‘snowball Earth’ ice age, ~635 Myr ago4, 5, 6, 7. A key piece of evidence supporting this hypothesis is the occurrence of exceptionally depleted carbon isotope signatures (δ13CPDB down to −48‰; ref. 8) in post-glacial cap dolostones (that is, dolostone overlying glacial deposits) from south China; these signatures have been interpreted as products of methane oxidation at the time of deposition5, 6, 8. Here we show, on the basis of carbonate clumped isotope thermometry, 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratios, trace element content and clay mineral evidence, that carbonates bearing the 13C-depleted signatures crystallized more than 1.6 Myr after deposition of the cap dolostone. Our results indicate that highly 13C-depleted carbonate cements grew from hydrothermal fluids and suggest that their carbon isotope signatures are a consequence of thermogenic methane oxidation at depth. This finding not only negates carbon isotope evidence for methane release during Marinoan deglaciation in south China, but also eliminates the only known occurrence of a Precambrian sedimentary carbonate with highly 13C-depleted signatures related to methane oxidation in a seep environment. We propose that the capacity to form highly 13C-depleted seep carbonates, through biogenic anaeorobic oxidation of methane using sulphate, was limited in the Precambrian period by low sulphate concentrations in sea water9. As a consequence, although clathrate destabilization may or may not have had a role in the exit from the ‘snowball’ state, it would not have left extreme carbon isotope signals in cap dolostones.
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