Ice age
Overview
 
An ice age or, more precisely, glacial age, is a generic geological period of long-term reduction in the temperature
Temperature
Temperature is a physical property of matter that quantitatively expresses the common notions of hot and cold. Objects of low temperature are cold, while various degrees of higher temperatures are referred to as warm or hot...

 of the Earth
Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

's surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental ice sheet
Ice sheet
An ice sheet is a mass of glacier ice that covers surrounding terrain and is greater than 50,000 km² , thus also known as continental glacier...

s, polar ice sheets and alpine glacier
Glacier
A glacier is a large persistent body of ice that forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries. At least 0.1 km² in area and 50 m thick, but often much larger, a glacier slowly deforms and flows due to stresses induced by its weight...

s. Within a long-term ice age, individual pulses of extra cold climate are termed "glacial period
Glacial period
A glacial period is an interval of time within an ice age that is marked by colder temperatures and glacier advances. Interglacials, on the other hand, are periods of warmer climate within an ice age...

s" (or alternatively "glacials" or "glaciations" or colloquially as "Ice Age"), and intermittent warm periods are called "interglacial
Interglacial
An Interglacial period is a geological interval of warmer global average temperature lasting thousands of years that separates consecutive glacial periods within an ice age...

s".
Unanswered Questions
Encyclopedia
An ice age or, more precisely, glacial age, is a generic geological period of long-term reduction in the temperature
Temperature
Temperature is a physical property of matter that quantitatively expresses the common notions of hot and cold. Objects of low temperature are cold, while various degrees of higher temperatures are referred to as warm or hot...

 of the Earth
Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

's surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental ice sheet
Ice sheet
An ice sheet is a mass of glacier ice that covers surrounding terrain and is greater than 50,000 km² , thus also known as continental glacier...

s, polar ice sheets and alpine glacier
Glacier
A glacier is a large persistent body of ice that forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries. At least 0.1 km² in area and 50 m thick, but often much larger, a glacier slowly deforms and flows due to stresses induced by its weight...

s. Within a long-term ice age, individual pulses of extra cold climate are termed "glacial period
Glacial period
A glacial period is an interval of time within an ice age that is marked by colder temperatures and glacier advances. Interglacials, on the other hand, are periods of warmer climate within an ice age...

s" (or alternatively "glacials" or "glaciations" or colloquially as "Ice Age"), and intermittent warm periods are called "interglacial
Interglacial
An Interglacial period is a geological interval of warmer global average temperature lasting thousands of years that separates consecutive glacial periods within an ice age...

s". Glaciologically
Glaciology
Glaciology Glaciology Glaciology (from Middle French dialect (Franco-Provençal): glace, "ice"; or Latin: glacies, "frost, ice"; and Greek: λόγος, logos, "speech" lit...

, ice age implies the presence of extensive ice sheet
Ice sheet
An ice sheet is a mass of glacier ice that covers surrounding terrain and is greater than 50,000 km² , thus also known as continental glacier...

s in the northern and southern hemispheres; by this definition we are still in the ice age that began at the start of the Pleistocene
Pleistocene
The Pleistocene is the epoch from 2,588,000 to 11,700 years BP that spans the world's recent period of repeated glaciations. The name pleistocene is derived from the Greek and ....

 (because the Greenland
Greenland ice sheet
The Greenland ice sheet is a vast body of ice covering , roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland. It is the second largest ice body in the world, after the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The ice sheet is almost long in a north-south direction, and its greatest width is at a latitude of 77°N, near its...

 and Antarctic ice sheet
Antarctic ice sheet
The Antarctic ice sheet is one of the two polar ice caps of the Earth. It covers about 98% of the Antarctic continent and is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million square km and contains 30 million cubic km of ice...

s still exist).

More colloquially, "the ice age" refers to the most recent colder period that peaked at the Last Glacial Maximum
Last Glacial Maximum
The Last Glacial Maximum refers to a period in the Earth's climate history when ice sheets were at their maximum extension, between 26,500 and 19,000–20,000 years ago, marking the peak of the last glacial period. During this time, vast ice sheets covered much of North America, northern Europe and...

 approximately 20,000 years ago, in which extensive ice sheets lay over large parts of the North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

n and Eurasia
Eurasia
Eurasia is a continent or supercontinent comprising the traditional continents of Europe and Asia ; covering about 52,990,000 km2 or about 10.6% of the Earth's surface located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres...

n continents. This article will use the term ice age in the former, glaciological, sense: glacials
Glacial period
A glacial period is an interval of time within an ice age that is marked by colder temperatures and glacier advances. Interglacials, on the other hand, are periods of warmer climate within an ice age...

for colder periods during ice ages and interglacials for the warmer periods.

Origin of ice age theory

In 1742 Pierre Martel (1706–1767), an engineer and geographer living in Geneva, visited the valley of Chamonix in the Alps of Savoy. Two years later he published an account of his journey. He reported that the inhabitants of that valley attributed the dispersal of erratic boulder
Glacial erratic
A glacial erratic is a piece of rock that differs from the size and type of rock native to the area in which it rests. "Erratics" take their name from the Latin word errare, and are carried by glacial ice, often over distances of hundreds of kilometres...

s to the fact that the glaciers had once extended much farther. Later similar explanations were reported from other regions of the Alps. In 1815 the carpenter and chamois
Chamois
The chamois, Rupicapra rupicapra, is a goat-antelope species native to mountains in Europe, including the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, the European Alps, the Tatra Mountains, the Balkans, parts of Turkey, and the Caucasus. The chamois has also been introduced to the South Island of New Zealand...

 hunter Jean-Pierre Perraudin (1767–1858) explained erratic boulders in the Val de Bagnes in the Swiss canton of Valais as being due to glaciers previously extending further. An unknown woodcutter from Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland advocated a similar idea in a discussion with the Swiss-German geologist Jean de Charpentier
Jean de Charpentier
Jean de Charpentier or Johann von Charpentier was a German-Swiss geologist who studied Swiss glaciers...

 (1786–1855) in 1834. Comparable explanations are also known from the Val de Ferret in the Valais and the Seeland in western Switzerland and in Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer, pictorial artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and polymath. He is considered the supreme genius of modern German literature. His works span the fields of poetry, drama, prose, philosophy, and science. His Faust has been called the greatest long...

's Scientific Work
Goethean science
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, although primarily known as a literary figure, did research in morphology, anatomy, and optics, and also developed a phenomenological approach to science and to knowledge in general....

. Such explanations could also be found in other parts of the world. When the Bavarian naturalist Ernst von Bibra
Ernst von Bibra
Dr. Ernst Freiherr von Bibra was a German Naturalist and author...

 (1806–1878) visited the Chilean Andes in 1849–1850 the natives attributed fossil moraine
Moraine
A moraine is any glacially formed accumulation of unconsolidated glacial debris which can occur in currently glaciated and formerly glaciated regions, such as those areas acted upon by a past glacial maximum. This debris may have been plucked off a valley floor as a glacier advanced or it may have...

s to the former action of glaciers.

Meanwhile, European scholars had begun to wonder what had caused the dispersal of erratic material. From the middle of the 18th century some discussed ice as a means of transport. The Swedish mining expert Daniel Tilas (1712–1772) was, in 1742, the first person to suggest drifting sea ice in order to explain the presence of erratic boulders in the Scandinavian and Baltic regions. In 1795, the Scottish philosopher and gentleman naturalist, James Hutton
James Hutton
James Hutton was a Scottish physician, geologist, naturalist, chemical manufacturer and experimental agriculturalist. He is considered the father of modern geology...

 (1726–1797), explained erratic boulders in the Alps with the action of glaciers. Two decades later, in 1818, the Swedish botanist Göran Wahlenberg
Göran Wahlenberg
Georg Wahlenberg was a Swedish naturalist. He was born in Kroppa, Värmland County.Wahlenberg matriculated at Uppsala University in 1792, received his doctorate in Medicine in 1806, was appointed botanices demonstrator in 1814, and professor of medicine and botany in 1829, succeeding Carl Peter...

 (1780–1851) published his theory of a glaciation of the Scandinavian peninsula. He regarded glaciation as a regional phenomenon. Only a few years later, the Danish-Norwegian Geologist Jens Esmark
Jens Esmark
Jens Esmark was a Danish-Norwegian professor of mineralogy who contributed to many of the initial discoveries and conceptual analyses of glaciers, specifically the concept that glaciers had covered larger areas in the past....

 (1763–1839) argued a sequence of worldwide ice ages. In a paper published in 1824, Esmark proposed changes in climate as the cause of those glaciations. He attempted to show that they originated from changes in the Earth's orbit. During the following years, Esmark’s ideas were discussed and taken over in parts by Swedish, Scottish and German scientists. At the University of Edinburgh Robert Jameson
Robert Jameson
thumb|Robert JamesonProfessor Robert Jameson, FRS FRSE was a Scottish naturalist and mineralogist.As Regius Professor at the University of Edinburgh for fifty years, Jameson is notable for his advanced scholarship in natural history, his superb museum collection, and for his tuition of Charles...

 (1774–1854) seemed to be relatively open towards Esmark's ideas. Jameson's remarks about ancient glaciers in Scotland were most probably prompted by Esmark. In Germany, Albrecht Reinhard Bernhardi (1797–1849), professor of forestry at Dreissigacker, adopted Esmark's theory. In a paper published in 1832, Bernhardi speculated about former polar ice caps reaching as far as the temperate zones of the globe.

Independently of these debates, the Swiss civil engineer Ignaz Venetz
Ignaz Venetz
Ignaz Venetz was a Swiss engineer, naturalist, and glaciologist; as one of the first scientists to recognize glaciers as a major force in shaping the earth, he played a leading role in the foundation of glaciology....

 (1788–1859) in 1829, explained the dispersal of erratic boulders in the Alps, the nearby Jura Mountains and the North German Plain as being due to huge glaciers. When he read his paper before the Schweizerische Naturforschende Gesellschaft, most scientists remained sceptical. Finally, Venetz managed to convince his friend Jean de Charpentier. De Charpentier transformed Venetz's idea into a theory with a glaciation limited to the Alps. His thoughts resembled Wahlenberg's theory. In fact, both men shared the same volcanistic, or in de Charpentier’s case rather plutonistic
Plutonism
Plutonism is the geologic theory that the rocks forming the Earth were formed in fire by volcanic activity, with a continuing gradual process of weathering and erosion wearing away rocks, which were then deposited on the sea bed, re-formed into layers of sedimentary rock by heat and pressure, and...

 assumptions, about earth history. In 1834, de Charpentier presented his paper before the Schweizerische Naturforschende Gesellschaft. In the meantime, the German botanist Karl Friedrich Schimper
Karl Friedrich Schimper
Karl Friedrich Schimper was a German naturalist and poet. Born in Mannheim, he was a theology student at Heidelberg University and taught at Munich University. He pioneered research in the field of plant morphology, particularly phyllotaxis...

 (1803–1867) was studying mosses which were growing on erratic boulders in the alpine upland of Bavaria. He began to wonder where such masses of stone had come from. During the summer of 1835 he made some excursions to the Bavarian Alps. Schimper came to the conclusion that ice must have been the means of transport for the boulders in the alpine upland. In the winter of 1835 to 1836 he held some lectures in Munich. Schimper then assumed that there must have been global times of obliteration (“Verödungszeiten“) with a cold climate and frozen water. Schimper spent the summer months of 1836 at Devens, near Bex, in the Swiss Alps with his former university friend Louis Agassiz
Louis Agassiz
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was a Swiss paleontologist, glaciologist, geologist and a prominent innovator in the study of the Earth's natural history. He grew up in Switzerland and became a professor of natural history at University of Neuchâtel...

 (1801–1873) and Jean de Charpentier. Schimper, de Charpentier and possibly Venetz convinced Agassiz that there had been a time of glaciation. During Winter 1836/7 Agassiz and Schimper developed the theory of a sequence of glaciations. They mainly drew upon the preceding works of Goethe, of Venetz, of de Charpentier and on their own fieldwork. There are indications that Agassiz was already familiar with Bernhardi's paper at that time. At the beginning of 1837 Schimper coined the term ice age (“Eiszeit“). In July 1837 Agassiz presented their synthesis before the annual meeting of the Schweizerische Naturforschende Gesellschaft at Neuchâtel. The audience was very critical or even opposed the new theory because it contradicted the established opinions on climatic history. Most contemporary scientists thought that the earth had been gradually cooling down since its birth as a molten globe.

In order to overcome this rejection, Agassiz embarked on geological fieldwork. He published his book Study on glaciers ("Études sur les glaciers") in 1840. De Charpentier was put out by this as he had also been preparing a book about the glaciation of the Alps. De Charpentier felt that Agassiz should have given him precedence as it was he who had introduced Agassiz to in depth glacial research. Besides that, Agassiz had, as a result of personal quarrels, omitted any mention of Schimper in his book.

Altogether, it took several decades until the ice age theory was fully accepted. This happened on an international scale in the second half of the 1870s following the work of James Croll
James Croll
James Croll was a 19th century Scottish scientist who developed a theory of climate change based on changes in the Earth's orbit.-Life:...

 including the publication of Climate and Time, in Their Geological Relations in 1875 which provided a credible explanation for the causes of ice ages.

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
Till
thumb|right|Closeup of glacial till. Note that the larger grains in the till are completely surrounded by the matrix of finer material , and this characteristic, known as matrix support, is diagnostic of till....

 or tillites and glacial erratic
Glacial erratic
A glacial erratic is a piece of rock that differs from the size and type of rock native to the area in which it rests. "Erratics" take their name from the Latin word errare, and are carried by glacial ice, often over distances of hundreds of kilometres...

s. Successive glaciations tend to distort and erase the geological evidence, making it difficult to interpret. Furthermore, this evidence was difficult to date exactly; early theories assumed that the glacials were short compared to the long interglacials. The advent of sediment and ice cores revealed the true situation: glacials are long, interglacials short. 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 fossils present in sediments and sedimentary rocks and ocean sediment cores. For the most recent glacial periods ice core
Ice core
An ice core is a core sample that is typically removed from an ice sheet, most commonly from the polar ice caps of Antarctica, Greenland or from high mountain glaciers elsewhere. As the ice forms from the incremental build up of annual layers of snow, lower layers are older than upper, and an ice...

s provide climate proxies
Proxy (climate)
In the study of past climates is known as paleoclimatology, climate proxies are preserved physical characteristics of the past that stand in for direct measurements , to enable scientists to reconstruct the climatic conditions that prevailed during much of the Earth's history...

 from their ice, and atmospheric samples from included bubbles of air. Because water containing heavier isotopes has a higher heat of evaporation, its proportion decreases with colder conditions. This allows a temperature record to be constructed. However, this evidence can be confounded by other factors recorded by isotope ratios.

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 covering a long period of time, over a wide range of latitudes and which 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.

Despite the difficulties, analysis of ice core and ocean sediment cores has shown periods 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 five major ice ages in the Earth's past. Outside these ages, the Earth
Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

 seems to have been ice-free even in high latitudes.

Rocks from the earliest well established ice age, called the Huronian
Huronian
The Huronian glaciation extended from 2400 Mya to 2100 Mya, during the Siderian and Rhyacian periods of the Paleoproterozoic era, triggered by the oxygen catastrophe, which oxidised the atmospheric methane...

, formed around 2.4 to 2.1 Ga (billion
1000000000 (number)
1,000,000,000 is the natural number following 999,999,999 and preceding 1,000,000,001.In scientific notation, it is written as 109....

 years) ago during the early Proterozoic
Proterozoic
The Proterozoic is a geological eon representing a period before the first abundant complex life on Earth. The name Proterozoic comes from the Greek "earlier life"...

 Eon. Several hundreds of km of the Huronian Supergroup
Huronian Supergroup
The Huronian Supergroup is a Proterozoic geologic feature of the Superior craton of the Canadian Shield in Ontario and Quebec. It extends from the city of Sault Ste. Marie in the west to the Ontario-Quebec border to the east....

 are exposed 10–100 km north the North Shore of Lake Huron extending from near Sault Ste. Marie to Sudbury NE of Lake Huron, with giant layers of now-lithified till beds, dropstones, varves, outwash, and scoured basement rocks. Correlative Huronian deposits have been found near Marquette, Michigan
Marquette, Michigan
Marquette is a city in the U.S. state of Michigan and the county seat of Marquette County. The population was 21,355 at the 2010 census, making it the most populated city of the Upper Peninsula. Marquette is a major port on Lake Superior, primarily for shipping iron ore and is the home of Northern...

, and correlation has been made with Paleoproterozic glacial deposits from Western Australia
Western Australia
Western Australia is a state of Australia, occupying the entire western third of the Australian continent. It is bounded by the Indian Ocean to the north and west, the Great Australian Bight and Indian Ocean to the south, the Northern Territory to the north-east and South Australia to the south-east...

.

The next well-documented ice age, and probably the most severe of the last billion years, occurred from 850 to 630 million years ago (the Cryogenian
Cryogenian
The Cryogenian is a geologic period that lasted from . It forms the second geologic period of the Neoproterozoic Era, preceded by the Tonian Period and followed by the Ediacaran...

 period) and may have produced a Snowball Earth
Snowball Earth
The Snowball Earth hypothesis posits that the Earth's surface became entirely or nearly entirely frozen at least once, some time earlier than 650 Ma . Proponents of the hypothesis argue that it best explains sedimentary deposits generally regarded as of glacial origin at tropical...

 in which glacial ice sheets reached the equator, possibly being ended by the accumulation of greenhouse gas
Greenhouse gas
A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone...

es such as CO2 produced by volcanoes. "The presence of ice on the continents and pack ice on the oceans would inhibit both silicate weathering
Weathering
Weathering is the breaking down of rocks, soils and minerals as well as artificial materials through contact with the Earth's atmosphere, biota and waters...

 and photosynthesis
Photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is a chemical process that converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from sunlight. Photosynthesis occurs in plants, algae, and many species of bacteria, but not in archaea. Photosynthetic organisms are called photoautotrophs, since they can...

, which are the two major sinks for CO2 at present." It has been suggested that the end of this ice age was responsible for the subsequent Ediacaran
Ediacaran
The Ediacaran Period , named after the Ediacara Hills of South Australia, is the last geological period of the Neoproterozoic Era and of the Proterozoic Eon, immediately preceding the Cambrian Period, the first period of the Paleozoic Era and of the Phanerozoic Eon...

 and Cambrian Explosion
Cambrian explosion
The Cambrian explosion or Cambrian radiation was the relatively rapid appearance, around , of most major phyla, as demonstrated in the fossil record, accompanied by major diversification of other organisms, including animals, phytoplankton, and calcimicrobes...

, though this model is recent and controversial.

A minor ice age, the Andean-Saharan
Andean-Saharan
The Andean-Saharan glaciation was from 460 Ma to 430 Ma, during the late Ordovician and the Silurian period....

, occurred from 460 to 420 million years ago, during the Late Ordovician and the Silurian
Silurian
The Silurian is a geologic period and system that extends from the end of the Ordovician Period, about 443.7 ± 1.5 Mya , to the beginning of the Devonian Period, about 416.0 ± 2.8 Mya . As with other geologic periods, the rock beds that define the period's start and end are well identified, but the...

 period. There were extensive polar ice cap
Ice cap
An ice cap is an ice mass that covers less than 50 000 km² of land area . Masses of ice covering more than 50 000 km² are termed an ice sheet....

s at intervals from 350 to 260 million years ago in South Africa during the Carboniferous
Carboniferous
The Carboniferous is a geologic period and system that extends from the end of the Devonian Period, about 359.2 ± 2.5 Mya , to the beginning of the Permian Period, about 299.0 ± 0.8 Mya . The name is derived from the Latin word for coal, carbo. Carboniferous means "coal-bearing"...

 and early Permian
Permian
The PermianThe term "Permian" was introduced into geology in 1841 by Sir Sir R. I. Murchison, president of the Geological Society of London, who identified typical strata in extensive Russian explorations undertaken with Edouard de Verneuil; Murchison asserted in 1841 that he named his "Permian...

 Periods, associated with the Karoo Ice Age
Karoo Ice Age
The Karoo Ice Age from 360–260 Ma was the second major ice age of the Phanerozoic Eon. It is named after the glacial tills found in the Karoo region of South Africa where evidence for this ice age was first clearly identified....

. Correlatives are known from Argentina, also forming in the center of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland.

The Karoo Ice Age
Karoo Ice Age
The Karoo Ice Age from 360–260 Ma was the second major ice age of the Phanerozoic Eon. It is named after the glacial tills found in the Karoo region of South Africa where evidence for this ice age was first clearly identified....

 occurred from 360 to 260 million years ago. It is named after the glacial tills found in the Karoo region of South Africa, where evidence for this ice age was first clearly identified. It is thought that this ice age was largely caused by the evolution of land plants with the onset of the Devonian
Devonian
The Devonian is a geologic period and system of the Paleozoic Era spanning from the end of the Silurian Period, about 416.0 ± 2.8 Mya , to the beginning of the Carboniferous Period, about 359.2 ± 2.5 Mya...

 period. The Earth during this time was covered with an immense degree of vegetation compared to earlier times, and this caused a long term increase in planetary oxygen levels and reduction of CO2 levels, which resulted in this ice age.

An ice sheet on Antarctica began to grow some 20 million years ago. The current ice age
Quaternary glaciation
Quaternary glaciation, also known as the Pleistocene glaciation, the current ice age or simply the ice age, refers to the period of the last few million years in which permanent ice sheets were established in Antarctica and perhaps Greenland, and fluctuating ice sheets have occurred elsewhere...

, the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation, started about 2.58 million years ago during the late Pliocene
Pliocene
The Pliocene Epoch is the period in the geologic timescale that extends from 5.332 million to 2.588 million years before present. It is the second and youngest epoch of the Neogene Period in the Cenozoic Era. The Pliocene follows the Miocene Epoch and is followed by the Pleistocene Epoch...

, when the spread of ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere began. Since then, the world has seen cycles of glaciation with ice sheets advancing and retreating on 40,000- and 100,000-year time scales called glacial period
Glacial period
A glacial period is an interval of time within an ice age that is marked by colder temperatures and glacier advances. Interglacials, on the other hand, are periods of warmer climate within an ice age...

s, glacials or glacial advances, and interglacial
Interglacial
An Interglacial period is a geological interval of warmer global average temperature lasting thousands of years that separates consecutive glacial periods within an ice age...

 periods, interglacials or glacial retreats. The earth is currently in an interglacial, and the last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago. All that remains of the continental ice sheet
Ice sheet
An ice sheet is a mass of glacier ice that covers surrounding terrain and is greater than 50,000 km² , thus also known as continental glacier...

s are the Greenland
Greenland ice sheet
The Greenland ice sheet is a vast body of ice covering , roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland. It is the second largest ice body in the world, after the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The ice sheet is almost long in a north-south direction, and its greatest width is at a latitude of 77°N, near its...

 and Antarctic ice sheet
Antarctic ice sheet
The Antarctic ice sheet is one of the two polar ice caps of the Earth. It covers about 98% of the Antarctic continent and is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million square km and contains 30 million cubic km of ice...

s and smaller glaciers such as on Baffin Island
Baffin Island
Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut is the largest island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the largest island in Canada and the fifth largest island in the world. Its area is and its population is about 11,000...

.

Ice ages can be further divided by location and time; for example, the names Riss (180,000–130,000 years bp
Before Present
Before Present years is a time scale used in archaeology, geology, and other scientific disciplines to specify when events in the past occurred. Because the "present" time changes, standard practice is to use AD 1950 as the origin of the age scale, reflecting the fact that radiocarbon...

) and Würm (70,000–10,000 years bp) refer specifically to glaciation in the Alpine region
Alps
The Alps is one of the great mountain range systems of Europe, stretching from Austria and Slovenia in the east through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany to France in the west....

. Note that the maximum extent of the ice is not maintained for the full interval. Unfortunately, the scouring action of each glaciation tends to remove most of the evidence of prior ice sheets almost completely, except in regions where the later sheet does not achieve full coverage.

Glacials and interglacials

Within the ice ages (or at least within the current one), more temperate and more severe periods occur. The colder periods are called glacial periods, the warmer periods interglacials, such as the Eemian Stage.

Glacials are characterized by cooler and drier climates over most of the Earth and large land and sea ice masses extending outward from the poles. Mountain
Mountain
Image:Himalaya_annotated.jpg|thumb|right|The Himalayan mountain range with Mount Everestrect 58 14 160 49 Chomo Lonzorect 200 28 335 52 Makalurect 378 24 566 45 Mount Everestrect 188 581 920 656 Tibetan Plateaurect 250 406 340 427 Rong River...

 glaciers in otherwise unglaciated areas extend to lower elevations due to a lower snow line
Snow line
The climatic snow line is the point above which snow and ice cover the ground throughout the year. The actual snow line may seasonally be significantly lower....

. Sea levels drop due to the removal of large volumes of water above sea level in the icecaps. There is evidence that ocean circulation patterns are disrupted by glaciations. Since the Earth has significant continental glaciation in the Arctic and Antarctic, we are currently in a glacial minimum of a glaciation. Such a period between glacial maxima is known as an interglacial.

The Earth has been in an interglacial period known as the Holocene
Holocene
The Holocene is a geological epoch which began at the end of the Pleistocene and continues to the present. The Holocene is part of the Quaternary period. Its name comes from the Greek words and , meaning "entirely recent"...

 for more than 11,000 years. It was conventional wisdom that "the typical interglacial period lasts about 12,000 years," but this has been called into question recently. For example, an article in Nature argues that the current interglacial might be most analogous to a previous interglacial that lasted 28,000 years. Predicted changes in orbital forcing
Orbital forcing
Orbital forcing is the effect on climate of slow changes in the tilt of the Earth's axis and shape of the orbit . These orbital changes change the total amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by up to 25% at mid-latitudes...

 suggest that the next glacial period would begin at least 50,000 years from now, even in absence of human-made global warming
Global warming
Global warming refers to the rising average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans and its projected continuation. In the last 100 years, Earth's average surface temperature increased by about with about two thirds of the increase occurring over just the last three decades...

 (see Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth's movements upon its climate, named after Serbian civil engineer and mathematician Milutin Milanković, who worked on it during First World War internment...

). Moreover, anthropogenic forcing from increased greenhouse gas
Greenhouse gas
A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone...

es might outweigh orbital forcing for as long as intensive use of fossil fuels continues. At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union
American Geophysical Union
The American Geophysical Union is a nonprofit organization of geophysicists, consisting of over 50,000 members from over 135 countries. AGU's activities are focused on the organization and dissemination of scientific information in the interdisciplinary and international field of geophysics...

 (December 17, 2008), scientists detailed evidence in support of the controversial idea that the introduction of large-scale rice agriculture in Asia, coupled with extensive deforestation in Europe began to alter world climate by pumping significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the last 1,000 years. In turn, a warmer atmosphere heated the oceans making them much less efficient storehouses of carbon dioxide and reinforcing global warming, possibly forestalling the onset of a new glacial age.

Positive and negative feedbacks in glacial periods

Each glacial period is subject to positive feedback
Positive feedback
Positive feedback is a process in which the effects of a small disturbance on a system include an increase in the magnitude of the perturbation. That is, A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A. In contrast, a system that responds to a perturbation in a way that reduces its effect is...

 which makes it more severe and negative feedback
Negative feedback
Negative feedback occurs when the output of a system acts to oppose changes to the input of the system, with the result that the changes are attenuated. If the overall feedback of the system is negative, then the system will tend to be stable.- Overview :...

 which mitigates and (in all cases so far) eventually ends it.

Positive feedback processes

Ice and snow increase the Earth's albedo
Albedo
Albedo , or reflection coefficient, is the diffuse reflectivity or reflecting power of a surface. It is defined as the ratio of reflected radiation from the surface to incident radiation upon it...

, i.e. they make it reflect more of the sun's energy and absorb less. Hence, when the air temperature decreases, ice and snow fields grow, and this continues until competition with a negative feedback mechanism forces the system to an equilibrium. Also, the reduction in forests caused by the ice's expansion increases albedo.

Another theory proposed by Ewing and Donn in 1956 hypothesized that an ice-free Arctic Ocean
Arctic Ocean
The Arctic Ocean, located in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Arctic north polar region, is the smallest and shallowest of the world's five major oceanic divisions...

 leads to increased snowfall at high latitudes. When low-temperature ice covers the Arctic Ocean there is little evaporation or sublimation
Sublimation (physics)
Sublimation is the process of transition of a substance from the solid phase to the gas phase without passing through an intermediate liquid phase...

 and the polar regions are quite dry in terms of precipitation, comparable to the amount found in mid-latitude desert
Desert
A desert is a landscape or region that receives an extremely low amount of precipitation, less than enough to support growth of most plants. Most deserts have an average annual precipitation of less than...

s. This low precipitation allows high-latitude snowfalls to melt during the summer. An ice-free Arctic Ocean absorbs solar radiation during the long summer days, and evaporates more water into the Arctic atmosphere. With higher precipitation, portions of this snow may not melt during the summer and so glacial ice can form at lower altitudes and more southerly latitudes, reducing the temperatures over land by increased albedo as noted above. Furthermore, under this hypothesis the lack of oceanic pack ice allows increased exchange of waters between the Arctic and the North Atlantic Oceans, warming the Arctic and cooling the North Atlantic. (Current projected consequences of global warming
Global warming
Global warming refers to the rising average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans and its projected continuation. In the last 100 years, Earth's average surface temperature increased by about with about two thirds of the increase occurring over just the last three decades...

 include a largely ice-free Arctic Ocean within 5–20 years, see Arctic shrinkage
Arctic shrinkage
Ongoing changes in the climate of the Arctic include rising temperatures, loss of sea ice, and melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Projections of sea ice loss suggest that the Arctic ocean will likely be free of summer sea ice sometime between 2060 and 2080, while another estimate puts this date at...

.) Additional fresh water flowing into the North Atlantic during a warming cycle may also reduce the global ocean water circulation
Thermohaline circulation
The term thermohaline circulation refers to a part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes....

 (see Shutdown of thermohaline circulation
Shutdown of thermohaline circulation
Shutdown or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation is a postulated effect of global warming.There is some speculation that global warming could, via a shutdown or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation, trigger localised cooling in the North Atlantic and lead to cooling, or lesser warming, in...

). Such a reduction (by reducing the effects of the Gulf Stream
Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension towards Europe, the North Atlantic Drift, is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean...

) would have a cooling effect on northern Europe, which in turn would lead to increased low-latitude snow retention during the summer. It has also been suggested that during an extensive ice age glaciers may move through the Gulf of Saint Lawrence
Gulf of Saint Lawrence
The Gulf of Saint Lawrence , the world's largest estuary, is the outlet of North America's Great Lakes via the Saint Lawrence River into the Atlantic Ocean...

, extending into the North Atlantic ocean to an extent that the Gulf Stream is blocked.

Negative feedback processes

Ice sheets that form during glaciations cause erosion of the land beneath them. After some time, this will reduce land above sea level and thus diminish the amount of space on which ice sheets can form. This mitigates the albedo feedback, as does the lowering in sea level
Sea level
Mean sea level is a measure of the average height of the ocean's surface ; used as a standard in reckoning land elevation...

 that accompanies the formation of ice sheets.

Another factor is the increased aridity occurring with glacial maxima, which reduces the precipitation available to maintain glaciation. The glacial retreat induced by this or any other process can be amplified by similar inverse positive feedbacks as for glacial advances.

Causes of ice ages

The causes of ice ages are not fully understood 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
Earth's atmosphere
The atmosphere of Earth is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by Earth's gravity. The atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention , and reducing temperature extremes between day and night...

, such as the concentrations of carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom...

 and methane
Methane
Methane is a chemical compound with the chemical formula . It is the simplest alkane, the principal component of natural gas, and probably the most abundant organic compound on earth. The relative abundance of methane makes it an attractive fuel...

 (the specific levels of the previously mentioned gases are now able to be seen with the new ice core samples from the Antarctic shelf over the past 650,000 years); changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

 known as Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth's movements upon its climate, named after Serbian civil engineer and mathematician Milutin Milanković, who worked on it during First World War internment...

 (and possibly the Sun's orbit around the galaxy); the motion of tectonic plates
Plate tectonics
Plate tectonics is a scientific theory that describes the large scale motions of Earth's lithosphere...

 resulting in changes in the relative location and amount of continental and oceanic crust on the Earth's surface, which affect wind
Wind
Wind is the flow of gases on a large scale. On Earth, wind consists of the bulk movement of air. In outer space, solar wind is the movement of gases or charged particles from the sun through space, while planetary wind is the outgassing of light chemical elements from a planet's atmosphere into space...

 and ocean currents
Atmospheric circulation
Atmospheric circulation is the large-scale movement of air, and the means by which thermal energy is distributed on the surface of the Earth....

; variations in solar output; the orbital dynamics of the Earth-Moon system; and the impact of relatively large meteorite
Meteorite
A meteorite is a natural object originating in outer space that survives impact with the Earth's surface. Meteorites can be big or small. Most meteorites derive from small astronomical objects called meteoroids, but they are also sometimes produced by impacts of asteroids...

s, and volcanism including eruptions of supervolcano
Supervolcano
A supervolcano is a volcano capable of producing a volcanic eruption with an ejecta volume greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers . This is thousands of times larger than most historic volcanic eruptions. Supervolcanoes can occur when magma in the Earth rises into the crust from a hotspot but is...

es.

Some of these factors influence 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
Weathering
Weathering is the breaking down of rocks, soils and minerals as well as artificial materials through contact with the Earth's atmosphere, biota and waters...

 removes CO2).

Maureen Raymo, William Ruddiman
William Ruddiman
William F. Ruddiman is a palaeoclimatologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia. Ruddiman earned an undergraduate degree in geology in 1964 at Williams College, and a Ph.D. in marine geology from Columbia University in 1969. Ruddiman worked at the US Naval Oceanographic Office...

 and others propose that the Tibetan
Tibetan Plateau
The Tibetan Plateau , also known as the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau is a vast, elevated plateau in Central Asia covering most of the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai, in addition to smaller portions of western Sichuan, southwestern Gansu, and northern Yunnan in Western China and Ladakh in...

 and Colorado Plateau
Colorado Plateau
The Colorado Plateau, also called the Colorado Plateau Province, is a physiographic region of the Intermontane Plateaus, roughly centered on the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States. The province covers an area of 337,000 km2 within western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico,...

s are immense CO2 "scrubbers" with a capacity to remove enough CO2 from the global atmosphere to be a significant causal factor of the 40 million year Cenozoic Cooling trend. They further claim that approximately half of their uplift (and CO2 "scrubbing" capacity) occurred in the past 10 million years.

Changes in Earth's atmosphere

There is evidence that greenhouse gas
Greenhouse gas
A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone...

 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 volcanism.

The Snowball Earth
Snowball Earth
The Snowball Earth hypothesis posits that the Earth's surface became entirely or nearly entirely frozen at least once, some time earlier than 650 Ma . Proponents of the hypothesis argue that it best explains sedimentary deposits generally regarded as of glacial origin at tropical...

 hypothesis maintains that the severe freezing in the late Proterozoic
Proterozoic
The Proterozoic is a geological eon representing a period before the first abundant complex life on Earth. The name Proterozoic comes from the Greek "earlier life"...

 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. The hypothesis also warns of future Snowball Earths.

The August 2009 edition of Science
Science (journal)
Science is the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is one of the world's top scientific journals....

provides further evidence that changes in solar insolation
Insolation
Insolation is a measure of solar radiation energy received on a given surface area in a given time. It is commonly expressed as average irradiance in watts per square meter or kilowatt-hours per square meter per day...

 provide the initial trigger for the Earth to warm after an Ice Age, with secondary factors like increases in greenhouse gases accounting for the magnitude of the change.

William Ruddiman has proposed the early anthropocene hypothesis, according to which the anthropocene
Anthropocene
The Anthropocene is a recent and informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems...

 era, as some people call the most recent period in the Earth's history when the activities of the human species first began to have a significant global impact on the Earth's climate and ecosystems, did not begin in the 18th century with the advent of the Industrial Era, but dates back to 8,000 years ago, due to intense farming activities of our early agrarian ancestors. It was at that time that atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations stopped following the periodic pattern of the Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth's movements upon its climate, named after Serbian civil engineer and mathematician Milutin Milanković, who worked on it during First World War internment...

. In his overdue-glaciation hypothesis Ruddiman states that an incipient ice age would probably have begun several thousand years ago, but the arrival of that scheduled ice age was forestalled by the activities of early farmers.

Position of the continents

The geological record appears to show that ice ages start when the continents are in positions
Continental drift
Continental drift is the movement of the Earth's continents relative to each other. The hypothesis that continents 'drift' was first put forward by Abraham Ortelius in 1596 and was fully developed by Alfred Wegener in 1912...

 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
Albedo
Albedo , or reflection coefficient, is the diffuse reflectivity or reflecting power of a surface. It is defined as the ratio of reflected radiation from the surface to incident radiation upon it...

 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 increases reflectivity in a positive feedback
Positive feedback
Positive feedback is a process in which the effects of a small disturbance on a system include an increase in the magnitude of the perturbation. That is, A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A. In contrast, a system that responds to a perturbation in a way that reduces its effect is...

 loop. The ice age continues until the reduction in weathering causes an increase in the greenhouse effect
Greenhouse effect
The greenhouse effect is a process by which thermal radiation from a planetary surface is absorbed by atmospheric greenhouse gases, and is re-radiated in all directions. Since part of this re-radiation is back towards the surface, energy is transferred to the surface and the lower atmosphere...

.

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 Antarctica does today.
  • A polar sea is almost land-locked, as the Arctic Ocean
    Arctic Ocean
    The Arctic Ocean, located in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Arctic north polar region, is the smallest and shallowest of the world's five major oceanic divisions...

     is today.
  • A supercontinent covers most of the equator, as Rodinia
    Rodinia
    In geology, Rodinia is the name of a supercontinent, a continent which contained most or all of Earth's landmass. According to plate tectonic reconstructions, Rodinia existed between 1.1 billion and 750 million years ago, in the Neoproterozoic era...

     did during the Cryogenian
    Cryogenian
    The Cryogenian is a geologic period that lasted from . It forms the second geologic period of the Neoproterozoic Era, preceded by the Tonian Period and followed by the Ediacaran...

     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 will continue to experience glacial periods in the geologically near future.

Some scientists believe that the Himalayas
Himalayas
The Himalaya Range or Himalaya Mountains Sanskrit: Devanagari: हिमालय, literally "abode of snow"), usually called the Himalayas or Himalaya for short, is a mountain range in Asia, separating the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau...

 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
Indo-Australian Plate
The Indo-Australian Plate is a major tectonic plate that includes the continent of Australia and surrounding ocean, and extends northwest to include the Indian subcontinent and adjacent waters...

 collided with the Eurasian Plate
Eurasian Plate
The Eurasian Plate is a tectonic plate which includes most of the continent of Eurasia , with the notable exceptions of the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian subcontinent, and the area east of the Chersky Range in East Siberia...

, and the Himalayas are still rising by about 5 mm 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 mid-Eocene
Eocene
The Eocene Epoch, lasting from about 56 to 34 million years ago , is a major division of the geologic timescale and the second epoch of the Paleogene Period in the Cenozoic Era. The Eocene spans the time from the end of the Palaeocene Epoch to the beginning of the Oligocene Epoch. The start of the...

, 40 million years ago.

Fluctuations in ocean currents

Another important contribution to ancient climate regimes is the variation of ocean currents, which are modified by continent position, sea levels and salinity, as well as other factors. They have the ability to cool (e.g. aiding the creation of Antarctic ice) and the ability to warm (e.g. giving the British Isles a temperate as opposed to a boreal climate). The closing of the Isthmus of Panama
Isthmus of Panama
The Isthmus of Panama, also historically known as the Isthmus of Darien, is the narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, linking North and South America. It contains the country of Panama and the Panama Canal...

 about 3 million years ago may have ushered in the present period of strong glaciation over North America by ending the exchange of water between the tropical Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Analyses suggest that ocean current fluctuations can adequately account for recent glacial oscillations. During the last glacial period the sea-level has fluctuated 20–30 m as water was sequestered, primarily in the northern hemisphere
Northern Hemisphere
The Northern Hemisphere is the half of a planet that is north of its equator—the word hemisphere literally means “half sphere”. It is also that half of the celestial sphere north of the celestial equator...

 ice sheets. When ice collected and the sea level dropped sufficiently, flow through the Bering Strait
Bering Strait
The Bering Strait , known to natives as Imakpik, is a sea strait between Cape Dezhnev, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Russia, the easternmost point of the Asian continent and Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, USA, the westernmost point of the North American continent, with latitude of about 65°40'N,...

 (the narrow strait between Siberia and Alaska is ~50 m deep today) was reduced, resulting in increased flow from the North Atlantic. This realigned the thermohaline circulation
Thermohaline circulation
The term thermohaline circulation refers to a part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes....

 in the Atlantic, increasing heat transport into the Arctic, which melted the polar ice accumulation and reduced other continental ice sheets. The release of water raised sea levels again, restoring the ingress of colder water from the Pacific with an accompanying shift to northern hemisphere ice accumulation.

Uplift of the Tibetan plateau and surrounding mountain areas above the snowline

Matthias Kuhle's
Matthias Kuhle
Matthias Kuhle is a German geographer and professor at the University of Göttingen. He edits the book series Geography International published by Shaker Verlag.-Education and career:...

 geological theory of Ice Age development was suggested by the existence of an ice sheet covering the Tibetan plateau
Tibetan Plateau
The Tibetan Plateau , also known as the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau is a vast, elevated plateau in Central Asia covering most of the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai, in addition to smaller portions of western Sichuan, southwestern Gansu, and northern Yunnan in Western China and Ladakh in...

 during the Ice Ages (Last Glacial Maximum
Last Glacial Maximum
The Last Glacial Maximum refers to a period in the Earth's climate history when ice sheets were at their maximum extension, between 26,500 and 19,000–20,000 years ago, marking the peak of the last glacial period. During this time, vast ice sheets covered much of North America, northern Europe and...

?). According to Kuhle, the plate-tectonic uplift of Tibet past the snow-line has led to a c. 2.4 million km² ice surface with a 70% greater albedo
Albedo
Albedo , or reflection coefficient, is the diffuse reflectivity or reflecting power of a surface. It is defined as the ratio of reflected radiation from the surface to incident radiation upon it...

 than the bare land surface. The reflection of energy into space resulted in a global cooling, triggering the Pleistocene
Pleistocene
The Pleistocene is the epoch from 2,588,000 to 11,700 years BP that spans the world's recent period of repeated glaciations. The name pleistocene is derived from the Greek and ....

 Ice Age. Because this highland is at a subtropical latitude, with 4 to 5 times the insolation of high-latitude areas, what would be Earth's strongest heating surface has turned into a cooling surface.

Kuhle explains the interglacial
Interglacial
An Interglacial period is a geological interval of warmer global average temperature lasting thousands of years that separates consecutive glacial periods within an ice age...

 periods by the 100,000-year cycle of radiation changes due to variations of the Earth's orbit. This comparatively insignificant warming, when combined with the lowering of the Nordic inland ice areas and Tibet due to the weight of the superimposed ice-load, has led to the repeated complete thawing of the inland ice areas.

Variations in Earth's orbit (Milankovitch cycles)

The Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch cycles
Milankovitch theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth's movements upon its climate, named after Serbian civil engineer and mathematician Milutin Milanković, who worked on it during First World War internment...

 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.

There is strong evidence that the Milankovitch cycles affect the occurrence of glacial and interglacial 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 core
Ice core
An ice core is a core sample that is typically removed from an ice sheet, most commonly from the polar ice caps of Antarctica, Greenland or from high mountain glaciers elsewhere. As the ice forms from the incremental build up of annual layers of snow, lower layers are older than upper, and an ice...

s 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
65th parallel north
The 65th parallel north is a circle of latitude that is 65 degrees north of the Earth's equatorial plane. It crosses the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Asia and North America....

 latitude
Latitude
In geography, the latitude of a location on the Earth is the angular distance of that location south or north of the Equator. The latitude is an angle, and is usually measured in degrees . The equator has a latitude of 0°, the North pole has a latitude of 90° north , and the South pole has a...

 varies by as much as 25% (from 450 W
Watt
The watt is a derived unit of power in the International System of Units , named after the Scottish engineer James Watt . The unit, defined as one joule per second, measures the rate of energy conversion.-Definition:...

/m² to 550 W/m²). 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 elements
Orbital elements
Orbital elements are the parameters required to uniquely identify a specific orbit. In celestial mechanics these elements are generally considered in classical two-body systems, where a Kepler orbit is used...

 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
Perturbation (astronomy)
Perturbation is a term used in astronomy in connection with descriptions of the complex motion of a massive body which is subject to appreciable gravitational effects from more than one other massive body....

 in Earth's orbital eccentricity
Orbital eccentricity
The orbital eccentricity of an astronomical body is the amount by which its orbit deviates from a perfect circle, where 0 is perfectly circular, and 1.0 is a parabola, and no longer a closed orbit...

 and orbital inclination
Inclination
Inclination in general is the angle between a reference plane and another plane or axis of direction.-Orbits:The inclination is one of the six orbital parameters describing the shape and orientation of a celestial orbit...

. 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
Richard A. Muller
Richard A. Muller is a noted American professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a faculty senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.-Career:...

, Gordon J. F. MacDonald
Gordon J. F. MacDonald
Gordon James Fraser MacDonald was an American geophysicist and environmental scientist, best known for his principled skepticism regarding continental drift , and later work on possible non-anthropogenic causes for global climate change...

, and others have pointed out that those calculations are for a two-dimensional orbit of Earth but the three-dimensional orbit also has a 100,000-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 Jose Antonio Rial.

Another worker, William Ruddiman
William Ruddiman
William F. Ruddiman is a palaeoclimatologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia. Ruddiman earned an undergraduate degree in geology in 1964 at Williams College, and a Ph.D. in marine geology from Columbia University in 1969. Ruddiman worked at the US Naval Oceanographic Office...

, has suggested a model that explains the 100,000-year cycle by the modulating effect of eccentricity (weak 100,000-year cycle) on precession (26,000-year cycle) combined with greenhouse gas feedbacks in the 41,000- and 26,000-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 behavior where only the second or third 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 a simple empirical multi-state model proposed by Didier Paillard. Paillard suggests that the late Pleistocene glacial cycles
can be seen as jumps between three quasi-stable climate states. The jumps are induced by the orbital forcing, while in the early Pleistocene the 41,000-year glacial cycles resulted from jumps between only two climate states. A dynamical
model explaining this behavior was proposed by Peter Ditlevsen. This is in support of the suggestion that the late Pleistocene glacial cycles are not due to the weak 100,000-year eccentricity cycle, but a non-linear response to mainly the 41,000-year obliquity cycle.

Variations in the Sun's energy output

There are at least two types of variation in the Sun's energy output:
  • In the very long term, astrophysicists believe that the Sun's output increases by about 7% every one billion (109) years.
  • Shorter-term variations such as sunspot cycles
    Sunspot
    Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the photosphere of the Sun that appear visibly as dark spots compared to surrounding regions. They are caused by intense magnetic activity, which inhibits convection by an effect comparable to the eddy current brake, forming areas of reduced surface temperature....

    , and longer episodes such as the Maunder minimum
    Maunder Minimum
    The Maunder Minimum is the name used for the period roughly spanning 1645 to 1715 when sunspots became exceedingly rare, as noted by solar observers of the time....

    , which occurred during the coldest part of the Little Ice Age
    Little Ice Age
    The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period . While not a true ice age, the term was introduced into the scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939...

    .


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

Volcanism

Volcanic eruptions may have contributed to the inception and/or the end of ice age periods. One suggested explanation of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum
Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum
The most extreme change in Earth surface conditions during the Cenozoic Era began at the temporal boundary between the Paleocene and Eocene epochs . This event, the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum , was associated with rapid global...

 is that undersea volcanoes released methane
Methane
Methane is a chemical compound with the chemical formula . It is the simplest alkane, the principal component of natural gas, and probably the most abundant organic compound on earth. The relative abundance of methane makes it an attractive fuel...

 from clathrates and thus caused a large and rapid increase in the greenhouse effect
Greenhouse effect
The greenhouse effect is a process by which thermal radiation from a planetary surface is absorbed by atmospheric greenhouse gases, and is re-radiated in all directions. Since part of this re-radiation is back towards the surface, energy is transferred to the surface and the lower atmosphere...

. There appears to be no geological evidence for such eruptions at the right time, but this does not prove they did not happen.

Recent glacial and interglacial phases

Glacial stages in North America

The major glacial stages of the current ice age in North America are the Illinoian, Sangamonian and Wisconsin stages. The use of the Nebraskan, Afton, Kansan, and Yarmouthian (Yarmouth) stages to subdivide the ice age in North America have been discontinued by Quaternary geologists and geomorphologists. These stages have all been merged into the Pre-Illinoian Stage in the 1980s.

During the most recent North American glaciation, during the latter part of the Wisconsin Stage
Last Glacial Maximum
The Last Glacial Maximum refers to a period in the Earth's climate history when ice sheets were at their maximum extension, between 26,500 and 19,000–20,000 years ago, marking the peak of the last glacial period. During this time, vast ice sheets covered much of North America, northern Europe and...

 (26,000 to 13,300 years ago), ice sheets extended to about 45 degrees north latitude. These sheets were 3 to 4 km thick.

This Wisconsin glaciation left widespread impacts on the North American landscape. The Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes
Finger Lakes
The Finger Lakes are a pattern of lakes in the west-central section of Upstate New York in the United States. They are a popular tourist destination. The lakes are long and thin , each oriented roughly on a north-south axis. The two longest, Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake, are among the deepest in...

 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
Teays River
The Teays River was an important preglacial river that drained much of the area now drained by the Ohio River, and more. Traces of the Teays across northern Ohio and Indiana are represented by a network of river valleys. These valleys were carved in the late Cenozoic and eventually led to the...

 drainage system was radically altered and largely reshaped into the Ohio River
Ohio River
The Ohio River is the largest tributary, by volume, of the Mississippi River. At the confluence, the Ohio is even bigger than the Mississippi and, thus, is hydrologically the main stream of the whole river system, including the Allegheny River further upstream...

 drainage system. Other rivers were dammed and diverted to new channels, such as the Niagara
Niagara Falls
The Niagara Falls, located on the Niagara River draining Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, is the collective name for the Horseshoe Falls and the adjacent American Falls along with the comparatively small Bridal Veil Falls, which combined form the highest flow rate of any waterfalls in the world and has...

, which formed a dramatic waterfall and gorge, when the waterflow encountered a limestone escarpment. Another similar waterfall, at the present Clark Reservation State Park
Clark Reservation State Park
Clark Reservation State Park is a state park in Onondaga County, New York. The park is in the Town of DeWitt, south of Syracuse. It was the site of a large waterfall at the end of the last Ice Age; the plunge basin at the base of the old falls is now a small lake...

 near Syracuse, New York
Syracuse, New York
Syracuse is a city in and the county seat of Onondaga County, New York, United States, the largest U.S. city with the name "Syracuse", and the fifth most populous city in the state. At the 2010 census, the city population was 145,170, and its metropolitan area had a population of 742,603...

, is now dry.

The area from Long Island
Long Island
Long Island is an island located in the southeast part of the U.S. state of New York, just east of Manhattan. Stretching northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island contains four counties, two of which are boroughs of New York City , and two of which are mainly suburban...

 to Nantucket was formed from glacial till
Till
thumb|right|Closeup of glacial till. Note that the larger grains in the till are completely surrounded by the matrix of finer material , and this characteristic, known as matrix support, is diagnostic of till....

, and the plethora of lakes on the Canadian Shield
Canadian Shield
The Canadian Shield, also called the Laurentian Plateau, or Bouclier Canadien , is a vast geological shield covered by a thin layer of soil that forms the nucleus of the North American or Laurentia craton. It is an area mostly composed of igneous rock which relates to its long volcanic history...

 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
Loess
Loess is an aeolian sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt, typically in the 20–50 micrometre size range, twenty percent or less clay and the balance equal parts sand and silt that are loosely cemented by calcium carbonate...

 many dozens of feet thick in the Missouri Valley
Missouri River
The Missouri River flows through the central United States, and is a tributary of the Mississippi River. It is the longest river in North America and drains the third largest area, though only the thirteenth largest by discharge. The Missouri's watershed encompasses most of the American Great...

. Isostatic rebound continues to reshape the Great Lakes
Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are a collection of freshwater lakes located in northeastern North America, on the Canada – United States border. Consisting of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, they form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth by total surface, coming in second by volume...

 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
Minnesota
Minnesota is a U.S. state located in the Midwestern United States. The twelfth largest state of the U.S., it is the twenty-first most populous, with 5.3 million residents. Minnesota was carved out of the eastern half of the Minnesota Territory and admitted to the Union as the thirty-second state...

, Iowa
Iowa
Iowa is a state located in the Midwestern United States, an area often referred to as the "American Heartland". It derives its name from the Ioway people, one of the many American Indian tribes that occupied the state at the time of European exploration. Iowa was a part of the French colony of New...

, and Illinois
Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

, was not covered by glaciers.

Effects of glaciation


Although the last glacial period ended more than 8,000 years ago, its effects can still be felt today. For example, the moving ice carved out the landscape in Canada (See Canadian Arctic Archipelago
Canadian Arctic Archipelago
The Canadian Arctic Archipelago, also known as the Arctic Archipelago, is a Canadian archipelago north of the Canadian mainland in the Arctic...

), Greenland, northern Eurasia and Antarctica. The erratic boulders, till, drumlins, eskers, fjords, kettle lakes, moraines, cirques, horns, etc., are typical features left behind by the glaciers.

The weight of the ice sheets was so great that they deformed the Earth's crust and mantle. After the ice sheets melted, the ice-covered land rebounded (see Post-glacial rebound
Post-glacial rebound
Post-glacial rebound is the rise of land masses that were depressed by the huge weight of ice sheets during the last glacial period, through a process known as isostasy...

). Due to the high viscosity of the Earth, the flow of mantle rocks which controls the rebound process is very slow – at a rate of about 1 cm/year near the center of rebound today.

During glaciation, water was taken from the oceans to form the ice at high latitudes, thus global sea level dropped by about 110 meters, exposing the continental shelves and forming land-bridges between land-masses for animals to migrate. During deglaciation, the melted ice-water returned to the oceans, causing sea level to rise. This process can cause sudden shifts in coastlines and hydration systems resulting in newly submerged lands, emerging lands, collapsed ice dam
Ice dam
An ice dam occurs when water builds up behind a blockage of ice. Ice dams can occur in various ways.-Caused by a glacier:Sometimes a glacier flows down a valley to a confluence where the other branch carries an unfrozen river...

s resulting in salination
Salinity
Salinity is the saltiness or dissolved salt content of a body of water. It is a general term used to describe the levels of different salts such as sodium chloride, magnesium and calcium sulfates, and bicarbonates...

 of lakes, new ice dams creating vast areas of freshwater, and a general alteration in regional weather patterns on a large but temporary scale. It can even cause temporary reglaciation. This type of chaotic pattern of rapidly changing land, ice, saltwater and freshwater has been proposed as the likely model for the Baltic
Baltic states
The term Baltic states refers to the Baltic territories which gained independence from the Russian Empire in the wake of World War I: primarily the contiguous trio of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania ; Finland also fell within the scope of the term after initially gaining independence in the 1920s.The...

 and Scandinavia
Scandinavia
Scandinavia is a cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and language. Modern Norway and Sweden proper are situated on the Scandinavian Peninsula,...

n regions, as well as much of central North America at the end of the last glacial maximum, with the present-day coastlines only being achieved in the last few millennia of prehistory. Also, the effect of elevation on Scandinavia submerged a vast continental plain that had existed under much of what is now the North Sea, connecting the British Isles to Continental Europe.

The redistribution of ice-water on the surface of the Earth and the flow of mantle rocks causes changes in the gravitational field as well as changes to the distribution of the moment of inertia
Moment of inertia
In classical mechanics, moment of inertia, also called mass moment of inertia, rotational inertia, polar moment of inertia of mass, or the angular mass, is a measure of an object's resistance to changes to its rotation. It is the inertia of a rotating body with respect to its rotation...

 of the Earth. These changes to the moment of inertia result in a change in the angular velocity
Angular velocity
In physics, the angular velocity is a vector quantity which specifies the angular speed of an object and the axis about which the object is rotating. The SI unit of angular velocity is radians per second, although it may be measured in other units such as degrees per second, revolutions per...

, axis, and wobble of the Earth's rotation (see Post-glacial rebound
Post-glacial rebound
Post-glacial rebound is the rise of land masses that were depressed by the huge weight of ice sheets during the last glacial period, through a process known as isostasy...

).

The weight of the redistributed surface mass loaded the lithosphere, caused it to flexure and also induced stress within the Earth. The presence of the glaciers generally suppressed the movement of faults below (Johnston 1989, Wu & Hasegawa 1996, Turpeinen et al. 2008). However, during deglaciation, the faults experience accelerated slip, and earthquakes are triggered (see Post-glacial rebound
Post-glacial rebound
Post-glacial rebound is the rise of land masses that were depressed by the huge weight of ice sheets during the last glacial period, through a process known as isostasy...

). Earthquakes triggered near the ice margin may in turn accelerate ice calving
Ice calving
Ice calving, also known as glacier calving or iceberg calving, is a form of ice ablation or ice disruption. It is the sudden release and breaking away of a mass of ice from a glacier, iceberg, ice front, ice shelf, or crevasse...

 and may account for the Heinrich events (Hunt & Malin 1998). As more ice is removed near the ice margin, more intraplate earthquakes are induced and this positive feedback may explain the fast collapse of ice sheets.

In Europe, glacial erosion and isostatic sinking from weight of ice made the Baltic Sea
Baltic Sea
The Baltic Sea is a brackish mediterranean sea located in Northern Europe, from 53°N to 66°N latitude and from 20°E to 26°E longitude. It is bounded by the Scandinavian Peninsula, the mainland of Europe, and the Danish islands. It drains into the Kattegat by way of the Øresund, the Great Belt and...

, which before the Ice Age was all land drained by a big river Eridanos.

See also

  • Geology
    Geology
    Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Geology gives insight into the history of the Earth, as it provides the primary evidence for plate tectonics, the evolutionary history of life, and past climates...

  • International Union for Quaternary Research
    International Union for Quaternary Research
    The International Union for Quaternary Research was founded in 1928. It has members from a number of scientific disciplines who study the environmental changes that occurred during the glacial ages, the last 2.6 million years...

  • Irish Sea Glacier
    Irish Sea Glacier
    The Irish Sea Glacier was a huge glacier during the Ice Age that, probably on more than one occasion, flowed southwards from its source areas in Scotland and Ireland and across the Isle of Man, Anglesey and Pembrokeshire....

  • Late Glacial Maximum
  • Little ice age
    Little Ice Age
    The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period . While not a true ice age, the term was introduced into the scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939...

  • Post-glacial rebound
    Post-glacial rebound
    Post-glacial rebound is the rise of land masses that were depressed by the huge weight of ice sheets during the last glacial period, through a process known as isostasy...

  • Timeline of glaciation
    Timeline of glaciation
    There have been five known ice ages in the Earth's history, with the Earth experiencing the Quaternary Ice Age during the present time. Within ice ages, there exist periods of more severe glacial conditions and more temperate referred to as glacial periods and interglacial periods, respectively...

  • Global cooling
    Global cooling
    Global cooling was a conjecture during the 1970s of imminent cooling of the Earth's surface and atmosphere along with a posited commencement of glaciation...


External links

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