Ice age

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Climate and the Weather

Variations in temperature, CO2, and dust from the Vostok ice core over the last 400,000 years
Variations in temperature, CO2, and dust from the Vostok ice core over the last 400,000 years

An ice age is a period of long-term downturn in the temperature of Earth's climate, resulting in an expansion of the continental ice sheets, polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers (" glaciation"). Glaciologically, ice age is often used to mean a period of ice sheets in the northern and southern hemispheres; by this definition we are still in an ice age (because the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets still exist). More colloquially, when speaking of the last few million years, ice age is used to refer to colder periods with extensive ice sheets over the North American and Eurasian continents: in this sense, the last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. This article will use the term ice age in the former, glaciological, sense; and use the term glacial periods for colder periods during ice ages and interglacial for the warmer periods.

Many glacial periods have occurred during the last few million years, initially at 40,000-year frequency but more recently at 100,000-year frequencies. These are the best studied. There have been four major ice ages in the further past.

Origin of ice age theory

The idea that, in the past, glaciers had been far more extensive was folk knowledge in some alpine regions of Europe: Imbrie and Imbrie quote a woodcutter telling Jean de Charpentier of the former extent of the Swiss Grimsel glacier. No single person invented the idea. Between 1825 and 1833, Charpentier assembled evidence in support of the concept. In 1836 Charpentier convinced Louis Agassiz of the theory, and Agassiz published it in his book Étude sur les glaciers (Study of Glaciers) of 1840. e. g.: North American review. / Volume 145, Issue 368, July 1887

At this early stage of knowledge, what was being studied were the glacial periods within the past few hundred thousand years, during the current ice age. The existence of ancient ice ages was as yet unsuspected.

Evidence for ice ages

There are three main types of evidence for ice ages: geological, chemical, and paleontological.

Geological evidence for ice ages comes in various forms, including rock scouring and scratching, glacial moraines, drumlins, valley cutting, and the deposition of till or tillites and glacial erratics. Successive glaciations tend to distort and erase the geological evidence, making it difficult to interpret. It took some time for the current theory to be worked out.

The chemical evidence mainly consists of variations in the ratios of isotopes in sedimentary rocks, ocean sediment cores, and for the most recent glacial periods, ice cores. This evidence is also difficult to interpret since other factors can change isotope ratios. For example a major mass extinction increases the proportion of lighter isotopes in sediments and ice because biological processes preferentially use lighter isotopes and a reduction in biological processes makes larger quantities of lighter isotopes available for deposition.

The paleontological evidence consists of changes in the geographical distribution of fossils - during a glacial period cold-adapted organisms spread into lower latitudes, and organisms that prefer warmer conditions become extinct or are squeezed into lower latitudes. This evidence is also difficult to interpret because it requires: (1) sequences of sediments which cover a long time-span and wide range of latitudes and are easily correlated, (2) ancient organisms which survive for several million years without change and whose temperature preferences are easily diagnosed, and (3) the finding of the relevant fossils, which requires a lot of luck.

Despite the difficulties, analyses of ice cores and ocean sediment cores unambiguously show the record of glacials and interglacials over the past few million years. These also confirm the linkage between ice ages and continental crust phenomena such as glacial moraines, drumlins, and glacial erratics. Hence the continental crust phenomena are accepted as good evidence of earlier ice ages when they are found in layers created much earlier than the time range for which ice cores and ocean sediment cores are available.

Major ice ages

There have been at least four major ice ages in the Earth's past.

The earliest hypothesized ice age is believed to have occurred around 2.7 to 2.3 billion (109) years ago during the early Proterozoic Age.

The earliest well-documented ice age, and probably the most severe of the last 1 billion years, occurred from 800 to 600 million years ago (the Cryogenian period) and it has been suggested that it produced a Snowball Earth in which permanent sea ice extended to or very near the equator. It has been suggested that the end of this ice age was responsible for the subsequent Cambrian Explosion, though this theory is recent and controversial.

A minor ice age occurred from 460 to 430 million years ago, during the Late Ordovician Period.

There were extensive polar ice caps at intervals from 350 to 260 million years ago, during the Carboniferous and early Permian Periods, associated with the Karoo Ice Age.

Sediment records showing the fluctuating sequences of glacials and interglacials during the last several million years.
Sediment records showing the fluctuating sequences of glacials and interglacials during the last several million years.

The present ice age began 40 million years ago with the growth of an ice sheet in Antarctica, but intensified during the Pleistocene (starting around 3 million years ago) with the spread of ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere. Since then, the world has seen cycles of glaciation with ice sheets advancing and retreating on 40,000 and 100,000 year time scales. The last glacial period ended about ten thousand years ago.


Shows the pattern of temperature and ice volume changes associated with recent glacials and interglacials
Shows the pattern of temperature and ice volume changes associated with recent glacials and interglacials

In between ice ages, there are multi-million year periods of more temperate, almost tropical, climate, but also within the ice ages (or at least within the last one), temperate and severe periods occur. The colder periods are called 'glacial periods', the warmer periods 'interglacials', such as the Eemian interglacial era.

The Earth is in an interglacial period now, the last retreat ending about 10,000 years ago. There appears to be a conventional wisdom that "the typical interglacial period lasts ~12,000 years" but this is hard to substantiate from the evidence of ice core records. For example, an article in Nature argues that the current interglacial might be most analogous to a previous interglacial that lasted 28,000 years. Nonetheless, fear of a new glacial period starting soon does exist (See: global cooling). However, many now believe that anthropogenic (manmade) forcing from increased " greenhouse gases" would outweigh any Milankovitch (orbital) forcing; and some recent considerations of the orbital forcing have even argued that in the absence of human perturbations the present interglacial could potentially last 50,000 years.

Causes of ice ages

The causes of ice ages remain controversial for both the large-scale ice age periods and the smaller ebb and flow of glacial/interglacial periods within an ice age. The consensus is that several factors are important: atmospheric composition (the concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur dioxide, and various other gases and particulates in the atmosphere); changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun known as Milankovitch cycles (and possibly the Sun's orbit around the galaxy); the motion of tectonic plates resulting in changes in the relative location and amount of continental and oceanic crust on the Earth's surface; variations in solar output; the orbital dynamics of the Earth-Moon system; and the impact of relatively large meteorites, and eruptions of supervolcanoes.

Some of these factors are causally related to each other. For example, changes in Earth's atmospheric composition (especially the concentrations of greenhouse gases) may alter the climate, while climate change itself can change the atmospheric composition (for example by changing the rate at which weathering removes CO2).

Discussions of causes are complicated by the tendency for scientists to emphasize their own disciplinary specializations; e.g., climatologists may emphasize changes in the Earth's atmosphere and geologists may emphasize the positions of the continents.

Changes in Earth's atmosphere

The most relevant change is in the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There is evidence that greenhouse gas levels fell at the start of ice ages and rose during the retreat of the ice sheets, but it is difficult to establish cause and effect (see the notes above on the role of weathering). Greenhouse gas levels may also have been affected by other factors which have been proposed as causes of ice ages, such as the movement of continents and vulcanism.

The "Snowball Earth" hypothesis maintains that the severe freezing in the late Proterozoic was ended by an increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere and some supporters of "Snowball Earth" argue that it was caused by a reduction in atmospheric CO2.

Position of the continents

The geological record appears to show that ice ages start when the continents are in positions which block or reduce the flow of warm water from the equator to the poles and thus allow ice sheets to form. The ice sheets increase the Earth's reflectivity and thus reduce the absorption of solar radiation. With less radiation absorbed the atmosphere cools; the cooling allows the ice sheets to grow, which further reduces reflectivity in a positive feedback loop. The ice age contunes until the reduction in weathering causes an increase in the greenhouse effect.

There are three known configurations of the continents which block or reduce the flow of warm water from the equator to the poles:

  • A continent sits on top of a pole, as Antartica does today.
  • A polar sea is almost land-locked, as the Arctic Ocean is today.
  • A supercontinent covers most of the equator, as Rodinia did during the Cryogenian period.

Since today's Earth has a continent over the South Pole and an almost land-locked ocean over the North Pole, geologists believe that Earth is likely to experience further glacial periods in the geologically near future. Estimates of the timing vary widely, from 2,000 to 50,000 years depending on other factors.

Some scientists believe that the Himalayas are a major factor in the current ice age, because these mountains have increased Earth's total rainfall and therefore the rate at which CO2 is washed out of the atmosphere, decreasing the greenhouse effect. The Himalayas' formation started about 70 million years ago when the Indo-Australian Plate collided with the Eurasian Plate, and the Himalayas are still rising by about 5mm per year because the Indo-Australian plate is still moving at 67 mm/year. The history of the Himalayas broadly fits the long-term decrease in Earth's average temperature since the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.

Variations in Earth's orbit (Milankovitch cycles)

The Milankovitch cycles are a set of cyclic variations in characteristics of the Earth's orbit around the sun. Each cycle has a different length, so at some times their effects reinforce each other and at other times they (partially) cancel each other.

It is very unlikely that the Milankovitch cycles can start or end an ice age (series of glacial periods):

  • Even when their effects reinforce each other they are not strong enough.
  • The "peaks" (effects reinforce each other) and "troughs" (effects cancel each other) are much more regular and much more frequent than the observed ice ages.

In contrast, there is strong evidence that the Milankovitch cycles affect the occurrence of glacial and inter-glacial periods within an ice age. The present ice ages are the most studied and best understood, particularly the last 400,000 years, since this is the period covered by ice cores that record atmospheric composition and proxies for temperature and ice volume. Within this period, the match of glacial/interglacial frequencies to the Milanković orbital forcing periods is so close that orbital forcing is generally accepted. The combined effects of the changing distance to the Sun, the precession of the Earth's axis, and the changing tilt of the Earth's axis redistribute the sunlight received by the Earth. Of particular importance are changes in the tilt of the Earth's axis, which affect the intensity of seasons. For example, the amount of solar influx in July at 65 degrees north latitude varies by as much as 25% (from 400 W/m2 to 500 W/m2, see graph at ). It is widely believed that ice sheets advance when summers become too cool to melt all of the accumulated snowfall from the previous winter. Some workers believe that the strength of the orbital forcing is too small to trigger glaciations, but feedback mechanisms like CO2 may explain this mismatch.

While Milankovitch forcing predicts that cyclic changes in the Earth's orbital parameters can be expressed in the glaciation record, additional explanations are necessary to explain which cycles are observed to be most important in the timing of glacial/interglacial periods. In particular, during the last 800,000 years, the dominant period of glacial-interglacial oscillation has been 100,000 years, which corresponds to changes in Earth's eccentricity and orbital inclination. Yet this is by far the weakest of the three frequencies predicted by Milankovitch. During the period 3.0 - 0.8 million years ago, the dominant pattern of glaciation corresponded to the 41,000 year period of changes in Earth's obliquity (tilt of the axis). The reasons for dominance of one frequency versus another are poorly understood and an active area of current research, but the answer probably relates to some form of resonance in the Earth's climate system.

The "traditional" Milankovitch explanation struggles to explain the dominance of the 100,000-year cycle over the last 8 cycles. Richard A. Muller and Gordon J. MacDonald and others have pointed out that those calculations are for a two-dimensional orbit of Earth but the three-dimensional orbit also has a 100 thousand year cycle of orbital inclination. They proposed that these variations in orbital inclination lead to variations in insolation, as the earth moves in and out of known dust bands in the solar system. Although this is a different mechanism to the traditional view, the "predicted" periods over the last 400,000 years are nearly the same. The Muller and MacDonald theory, in turn, has been challenged by Rial .

Another worker, Ruddiman, has suggested a plausible model that explains the 100,000-year cycle by the modulating effect of eccentricity (weak 100,000 year cycle) on precession (23,000 year cycle) combined with greenhouse gas feedbacks in the 41,000 and 23,000-year cycles. Yet another theory has been advanced by Peter Huybers who argued that the 41,000-year cycle has always been dominant, but that the Earth has entered a mode of climate behaviour where only the 2nd or 3rd cycle triggers an ice age. This would imply that the 100,000-year periodicity is really an illusion created by averaging together cycles lasting 80,000 and 120,000 years. This theory is consistent with the existing uncertainties in dating, but not widely accepted at present (Nature 434, 2005, ).

Variations in the sun's energy output

There at least 2 types of variation in the sun's energy output:

  • In the very long term, astrophysicists believe that the sun's output increases by about 10% per billion (109) years. In about 1 billion years the additional 10% will be enough to cause a runaway greenhouse effect on Earth - rising temperatures produce more water vapour, water vapour is a greenhouse gas (much weaker than CO2, but there will eventually be vastly more water vapour), the temperature rises, more water vapour is produced, etc.
  • Shorter-term variations, some possibly caused by "hunting". Since the sun is huge, the effects of imbalances and negative feedback processes take a long time to propagate through it, so these processes overshoot and cause further imbalances, etc. - "long time" in this context means thousands to millions of years.

The long-term increase in the Sun's output cannot be a cause of ice ages.

The best known shorter-term variations are sunspot cycles, especially the Maunder minimum, which is associated with the coldest part of the Little Ice Age. Like the Milankovitch cycles, sunspot cycles effects' are too weak and too frequent to explain the start and end of ice ages but very probably help to explain temperature variations within them.


The largest known volcanic events, the flood basalt events which produced the Siberian Traps and Deccan traps and are both associated with mass extinctions, are not associated with ice ages. At first sight this implies that vulcanism cannot have produced ice ages.

But 70% of Earth's surface is covered by sea, and the theory of plate tectonics predicts that all of the Earth's oceanic crust is completely replaced about every 200 million years. Hence it is impossible to find evidence of submarine flood basalts or other extremely large undersea volcanic events more than 200 million years old, and evidence of more recent extremely large undersea volcanic events may already have been erased. In other words, our failure to find evidence of other extremely large volcanic events does not prove that they did not happen.

It is theoretically possible that undersea volcanos could end an ice age by causing global warming. One suggested explanation of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum is that undersea volcanoes released methane from clathrates and thus caused a large and rapid increase in the greenhouse effect. There appears to be no geological evidence for such eruptions at the right time, but this does not prove they did not happen.

It is harder to see how vulcanism could cause an ice age, since its cooling effects would have to be stronger than and to outlast its warming effects. This would require dust and aerosol clouds which would stay in the upper atmosphere blocking the sun for thousands of years, which seems very unlikely. And undersea volcanos could not produce this effect because the dust and aerosols would be absorbed by the sea before they reached the atmosphere.

Recent glacial and interglacial phases

Glaciation in North America

Northern hemisphere glaciation during the last ice ages. The set up of 3 to 4 km thick ice sheets caused a sea level lowering of about 120 m.
Northern hemisphere glaciation during the last ice ages. The set up of 3 to 4 km thick ice sheets caused a sea level lowering of about 120 m.

During the most recent North American glaciation, the Wisconsin glaciation (70,000 to 10,000 years ago), ice sheets extended to about 45 degrees north latitude.

This Wisconsinian glaciation left widespread impacts on the North American landscape. The Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes were carved by ice deepening old valleys. Most of the lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin were gouged out by glaciers and later filled with glacial meltwaters. The old Teays River drainage system was radically altered and largely reshaped into the Ohio River drainage system. Other rivers were dammed and diverted to new channels, such as the Niagara, which formed a dramatic waterfall and gorge, when the waterflow encountered a limestone escarpment. Another similar waterfall near Syracuse, New York is now dry.

Long Island was formed from glacial till, and the watersheds of Canada were so severely disrupted that they are still sorting themselves out — the plethora of lakes on the Canadian Shield in northern Canada can be almost entirely attributed to the action of the ice. As the ice retreated and the rock dust dried, winds carried the material hundreds of miles, forming beds of loess many dozens of feet thick in the Missouri Valley. Isostatic rebound continues to reshape the Great Lakes and other areas formerly under the weight of the ice sheets.

The Driftless Zone, a portion of western and southwestern Wisconsin along with parts of adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois was not covered by glaciers.

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