What is an Ice Age?

Article Updated: 3 Jan , 2017

Scientists have known for some time that the Earth goes through cycles of climatic change. Owing to changes in Earth’s orbit, geological factors, and/or changes in Solar output, Earth occasionally experiences significant reductions in its surface and atmospheric temperatures. This results in long-term periods of glaciation, or what is more colloquially known as an “ice age”.

These periods are characterized by the growth and expansion of ice sheets across the Earth’s surface, which occurs every few million years. By definition we are still in the last great ice age – which began during the late Pliocene epoch (ca. 2.58 million years ago) – and are currently in an interglacial period, characterized by the retreat of glaciers.


While the term “ice age” is sometime used liberally to refer to cold periods in Earth’s history, this tends to belie the complexity of glacial periods. The most accurate definition would be that ice ages are periods when ice sheets and glaciers expand across the planet, which correspond to significant drops in global temperatures and can last for millions of years.

The Antarctic ice sheet, which expanded during the last ice age. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Stephen Hudson

During an ice age, there are significant temperature differences between the equator and the poles, and temperatures at deep-sea levels have also been shown to drop. This allows for large glaciers (comparable to continents) to expand, covering much of the surface area of the planet. Since the Pre-Cambrian Era (ca. 600 million years ago), ice ages have occurred at widely space intervals about about 200 million years.

History of Study:

The first scientist to theorize about past glacial periods was the 18th century Swiss engineer and geographer Pierre Martel. In 1742, while visiting an Alpine valley, he wrote about the dispersal of large rocks in erratic formations, which the locals attributed to the glaciers having once extended much further. Similar explanations began to emerge in the ensuing decades for similar patterns of boulder distribution in other parts of he world.

From the middle of the 18th century onward, European scholars increasingly began to contemplate ice as a means of transporting rocky material. This included the presence of boulders in coastal areas in the Baltic states and the Scandinavian peninsula. However, it was Danish-Norwegian geologist Jens Esmark (1762–1839) who first argued the existence of a sequence of world wide ice ages.

This theory was detailed in a paper he published in 1824, in which he proposed that changes in Earth’s climate (which were due to changes in its orbit) were responsible. This was followed in 1832 by German geologist and forestry professor Albrecht Reinhard Bernhardi speculating about how the polar ice caps may have once reached as far as the temperate zones of the world.

Overlook of the Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana. Credit: USGS

At this same time, German botanist Karl Friedrich Schimper and Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz began independently developing their own theory about global glaciation, which led toSchimper coining the term “ice age” in 1837. By the late 19th century, ice age theory gradually began to gain widespread acceptance over the notion that the Earth cooled gradually from its original, molten state.

By the 20th century, Serbian polymath Milutin Milankovic developed his concept of Milankovic cycles, which linked long-term climate changes to periodic changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This offered a demonstrable explanation for ice ages, and allowed scientists to make predictions about when significant changes in Earth’s climate might occur again.

Evidence for Ice Ages:

There are three forms of evidence for ice age theory, which range from the geological and the chemical to the paleontological (i.e. the fossil record). Each has its particular benefits and drawbacks, and has helped scientists to develop a general understanding of the effect ice ages have had on geological record for the past few billion years.

Geological: Geological evidence includes rock scouring and scratching, carved valleys, the formation of peculiar types of ridges, and the deposition of unconsolidated material (moraines) and large rocks in erratic formations.  While this sort of evidence is what led to ice age theory in the first place, it remains temperamental.

For one, successive glaciation periods have different effects on a region, which tends to distort or erase geological evidence over time. In addition, geological evidence is difficult to date exactly, causing problems when it comes to getting an accurate assessment of how long glacial and interglacial periods have lasted.

Horseshoe-shaped lateral moraines at the margin of the Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. Lateral moraines are accumulations of debris along the sides of a glacier formed by material falling from the valley wall. Credit: NASA/Michael Studinger

Chemical: This consists largely of variations in the ratios of isotopes in fossils discovered in sediment and rock samples. For more recent glacial periods, ice cores are used to construct a global temperature record, largely from the presence of heavier isotopes (which lead to higher evaporation temperatures). They often contain bubbles of air as well, which are examined to assess the composition of the atmosphere at the time.

Limitations arise from various factors, however. Foremost among these are isotope ratios, which can have a confounding effect on accurate dating. But as far as the most recent glacial and interglacial periods are concerned (i.e. during the past few million years), ice core and ocean sediment core samples remain the most trusted form of evidence.

Paleontological: This evidence consists of changes in the geographical distribution of fossils. Basically, organisms that thrive in warmer conditions become extinct during glacial periods (or become highly restricted in lower latitudes), while cold-adapted organisms thrive in these same latitudes. Ergo, reduced amounts of fossils in higher latitudes is an indication of the spread of glacial ice sheets.

This evidence can also be difficult to interpret because it requires that the fossils be relevant to the geological period under study. It also requires that sediments over wide ranges of latitudes and long periods of time show a distinct correlation (due to changes in the Earth’s crust over time). In addition, there are many ancient organisms that have shown the ability to survive changes in conditions for millions of years.

As a result, scientists rely on a combined approach and multiple lines of evidence wherever possible.

Ice ages are characterized by a drop in average global temperatures, resulting in the expansion of ice sheets globally. Credit: NASA

Causes of Ice Ages:

The scientific consensus is that several factors contribute to the onset of ice ages. These include changes in Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the motion of tectonic plates, variations in Solar output, changes in atmospheric composition, volcanic activity, and even the impact of large meteorites. Many of these are interrelated, and the exact role that each play is subject to debate.

Earth’s Orbit: Essentially, Earth’s orbit around the Sun is subject to cyclic variations over time, a phenomenon also known as Milankovic (or Milankovitch) cycles. These are characterized by changing distances from the Sun, the precession of the Earth’s axis, and the changing tilt of the Earth’s axis – all of which result in a redistribution of the sunlight received by the Earth.

The most compelling evidence for Milankovic orbital forcing corresponds closely to the most recent (and studied) period in Earth’s history (circa. during the last 400,000 years). During this period, the timing of glacial and interglacial periods are so close to changes in Milankovic orbital forcing periods that it is the most widely accepted explanation for the last ice age.

Tectonic Plates: The geological record shows an apparent correlation between the onset of ice ages and the positions of the Earth’s continents. During these periods, they were in positions which disrupted or blocked the flow of warm water to the poles, thus allowing ice sheets to form.

The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

This in turn increased the Earth’s albedo, which reduces the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere and crust. This resulted in a positive feedback loop, where the advance of ice sheets further increased the Earth’s albedo and allowed for more cooling and more glaciation. This would continue until the onset of a greenhouse effect ended the period of glaciation.

Based on past ice-ages, three configurations have been identified that could lead to an ice age – a continent sitting atop the Earth’s pole (as Antarctica does today); a polar sea being land-locked (as the Arctic Ocean is today); and a super continent covering most of the equator (as Rodinia did during the Cryogenian period).

In addition, some scientists believe that the Himalayan mountain chain – which formed 70 million years ago – has played a major role in the most recent ice age. By increasing the Earth’s total rainfall, it has also increased the rate at which CO² has been removed from the atmosphere (thereby decreasing the greenhouse effect). Its existence has also paralleled the long-term decrease in Earth’s average temperature over the past 40 million years.

Atmospheric Composition: There is evidence that levels of greenhouse gases fall with the advance of ice sheets and rise with their retreat. According to the “Snowball Earth” hypothesis – in which ice completely or very nearly covered the planet at least once in the past – the ice age of the late Proterozoic was ended by an increase in CO² levels in the atmosphere, which was attributed to volcanic eruptions.

Image of the Harding Ice Field on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

However, there are those who suggest that increased levels of carbon dioxide may have served as a feedback mechanism, rather than the cause. For example, in 2009, an international team of scientists produced a study – titled “The Last Glacial Maximum” – that indicated that an increase in solar irradiance (i.e. energy absorbed from the Sun) provided the initial change, whereas greenhouse gases accounted for the magnitude of change.

Major Ice Ages:

Scientists have determined that at least five major ice ages took place in Earth’s history. These include the Huronian, Cryogenian, Andean-Saharan, Karoo, and the Qauternary ice ages. The Huronian Ice Age is dated to the early Protzerozoic Eon, roughly 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago, based on geological evidence observed to the north and north-east of Lake Huron (and correlated to deposits found in Michigan and Western Australia).

The Cryogenian Ice Age lasted from roughly 850 to 630 million years ago, and was perhaps the most severe in Earth’s history. It is believed that during this period, the glacial ice sheets reached the equator, thus leading to a “Snowball Earth” scenario. It is also believed that ended due to a sudden increase in volcanic activity that triggered a greenhouse effect, though (as noted) this is subject to debate.

The Andean-Saharan Ice Age occurred during the Late Ordovician and the Silurian period (roughly 460 to 420 million years ago). As the name suggests, the evidence here is based on geological samples take from the Tassili n’Ajjer mountain range in the western Sahara, and correlated by evidence obtained from the Andean mountain chain in South America (as well as the Arabian peninsula and the south Amazon basin).

Floating ice at the calving front of Greenland’s Kangerdlugssuaq glacier, photographed in 2011 during Operation IceBridge. Credit: NASA/Michael Studinger

The Karoo Ice Age is attributed to the evolution of land plants during the onset of the Devonian period (ca. 360 to 260 million years ago) which caused a long-term increase in planetary oxygen levels and a reduction in CO² levels – leading to global cooling. It is named after sedimentary deposits that were discovered in the Karoo region of South Africa, with correlating evidence found in Argentina.

The current ice age, known as the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation, started about 2.58 million years ago during the late Pliocene, when the spread of ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere began. Since then, the world has experienced several glacial and interglacial periods, where ice sheets advance and retreat on time scales of 40,000 to 100,000 years.

The Earth is currently in an interglacial period, and the last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago. What remains of the continental ice sheets that once stretched across the globe are now restricted to Greenland and Antarctic, as well as smaller glaciers – like the one that covers Baffin Island.

Anthropogenic Climate Change:

The exact role played by all the mechanisms that ice ages are attributed to – i.e. orbital forcing, solar forcing, geological and volcanic activity – are not yet entirely understood. However, given the role of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, there has been a great deal of concern in recent decades what long-term effects human activity will have on the planet.

For instance, in at least two major ice ages, the Cryogenian and Karoo Ice Ages, increases and decreases in atmospheric greenhouse gases are believed to have played a major role. In all other cases, where orbital forcing is believed to be the primary cause of an ice age ending, increased greenhouse gas emissions were still responsible for the negative feedback that led to even greater increases in temperature.

The addition of CO2 by human activity has also played a direct role in climatic changes taking place around the world. Currently, the burning of fossil fuels by humans constitutes the largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide (about 90%) worldwide, which is one of the main greenhouse gases that allows radiative forcing (aka. the Greenhouse Effect) to take place.

In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that CO² levels in the upper atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since measurements began in the 19th century. Based on the current rate at which emissions are growing, NASA estimates that carbon levels could reach between 550 to 800 ppm in the coming century.

If the former scenario is the case, NASA anticipates a rise of 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) in average global temperatures, which would be sustainable. However, should the latter scenario prove to be the case, global temperatures will rise by an average of 4.5 °C (8 °F), which would make life untenable for many parts of the planet. For this reason, alternatives are being sought out for development and widespread commercial adoption.

What’s more, according to a 2012 research study published in Nature Geoscience – titled “Determining the natural length of the current interglacial” – human emissions of CO² are also expected to defer the next ice age. Using data on Earth’s orbit to calculate the length of interglacial periods, the research team concluded that the next ice (expected in 1500 years) would require atmospheric CO² levels to remain beneath around 240?ppm.

Learning more about the longer ice ages as well the shorter glacial periods that have taken place in Earth’s past is important step towards understanding how Earth’s climate changes over time. This is especially important as scientists seek to determine how much of modern climate change is man-made, and what possible counter-measures can be developed.

We have written many articles about the Ice Age for Universe Today. Here’s New Study Reveals Little Ice Age Driven by Volcanism, Did a Killer Asteroid Drive the Planet into an Ice Age?, Was There a Slushball Earth?, and Is Mars Coming out of an Ice Age?

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth and Episode 308: Climate Change.


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3 Responses

  1. Aqua4U says:

    Imagine Earth with a sea level lowered by 200-350 feet. Where would people back then choose to live? Along coastlines? My favorite dream is of a ‘Capt. Nemo’ style globe spanning submarine expedition where we would use sidescan sonars to map ice age coastlines in detail paying special attention to where rivers and streams reached the sea..

    Imagine finding the remains of a ‘stone age’ village at those depths and that age.

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