A Brief History of Ice Ages and Warming
Earth's climate and the biosphere have been in constant flux, dominated by ice ages and glaciers for the past several million years. We are currently enjoying a temporary reprieve from the deep freeze.
Approximately every 100,000 years Earth's climate warms up temporarily. These warm periods, called interglacial periods, appear to last approximately 15,000 to 20,000 years before regressing back to a cold ice age climate. At year 18,000 and counting our current interglacial vacation from the Ice Age is much nearer its end than its beginning.
Global warming during Earth's current interglacial warm period has greatly altered our environment and the distribution and diversity of all life. For example:
Approximately 15,000 years ago the earth had warmed sufficiently to halt the advance of glaciers, and sea levels worldwide began to rise.
By 8,000 years ago the land bridge across the Bering Strait was drowned, cutting off the migration of men and animals to North America.
Since the end of the Ice Age, Earth's temperature has risen approximately 16 degrees F and sea levels have risen a total of 300 feet! Forests have returned where once there was only ice.
Over the past 750,000 years of Earth's history, Ice Ages have occurred at regular intervals, of approximately 100,000 years each.Courtesy of Illinois State Museum
During ice ages our planet is cold, dry, and inhospitable-- supporting few forests but plenty of glaciers and deserts. Like a spread of collosal bulldozers, glaciers have scraped and pulverized vast stretches of Earth's surface and completely destroyed entire regional ecosystems not once, but several times. During Ice Ages winters were longer and more severe and ice sheets grew to tremendous size, accumulating to thicknesses of up to 8,000 feet!. They moved slowly from higher elevations to lower-- driven by gravity and their tremendous weight. They left in their wake altered river courses, flattened landscapes, and along the margins of their farthest advance, great piles of glacial debris.
During the last 3 million years glaciers have at one time or another covered about 29% of Earth's land surface or about 17.14 million square miles (44.38 million sq. km.) . What did not lay beneath ice was a largely cold and desolate desert landscape, due in large part to the colder, less-humid atmospheric conditions that prevailed.
During the Ice Age summers were short and winters were brutal. Animal life and especially plant life had a very tough time of it. Thanks to global warming, that has all now changed, at least temporarily.
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The World 18,000 Years Ago
Before "global warming" started 18,000 years ago most of the earth was a frozen and arid wasteland. Over half of earth 's surface was covered by glaciers or extreme desert. Forests were rare.
Not a very fun place to live.
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Our Present World
"Global warming" over the last 15,000 years has changed our world from an ice box to a garden. Today extreme deserts and glaciers have largely given way to grasslands, woodlands, and forests.
Wish it could last forever, but . . . .
Periods of Earth warming and cooling occur in cycles. This is well understood, as is the fact that small-scale cycles of about 40 years exist within larger-scale cycles of 400 years, which in turn exist inside still larger scale cycles of 20,000 years, and so on.
In the 1970s concerned environmentalists like Stephen Schneider of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado feared a return to another ice age due to manmade atmospheric pollution blocking out the sun.
Since about 1940 the global climate did in fact appear to be cooling. Then a funny thing happened-- sometime in the late 1970s temperature declines slowed to a halt and ground-based recording stations during the 1980s and 1990s began reading small but steady increases in near-surface temperatures. Fears of "global cooling" then changed suddenly to "global warming,"-- the cited cause:
manmade atmospheric pollution causing a runaway greenhouse effect.
What does geologic history have to offer in sorting through the confusion?
Quite a bit, actually.
"If 'ice age' is used to refer to long, generally cool, intervals during which glaciers advance and retreat, we are still in one today. Our modern climate represents a very short, warm period between glacial advances." Illinois State Museum
Example of regional variations in surface air temperature for the last 1000 years, estimated from a variety of sources, including temperature-sensitive tree growth indices and written records of various kinds, largely from western Europe and eastern North America. Shown are changes in regional temperature in ° C, from the baseline value for 1900. Compiled by R. S. Bradley and J. A. Eddy based on J. T. Houghton et al., Climate Change: The IPCC Assessment, Cambridge UniversityPress, Cambridge, 1990 and published in EarthQuest, vol 5, no 1, 1991. Courtesy of Thomas Crowley, Remembrance of Things Past: Greenhouse Lessons from the Geologic Record
Earth's climate was in a cool period from A.D. 1400 to about A.D. 1860, dubbed the "Little Ice Age." This period was characterized by harsh winters, shorter growing seasons, and a drier climate. The decline in global temperatures was a modest 1/2° C, but the effects of this global cooling cycle were more pronounced in the higher latitudes. The Little Ice Age has been blamed for a host of human suffering including crop failures like the "Irish Potato Famine" and the demise of the medieval Viking colonies in Greenland.
Today we enjoy global temperatures which have warmed back to levels of the so called "Medieval Warm Period," which existed from approximately A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1350.
"...the Earth was evidently coming out of a relatively cold period in the 1800s so that warming in the past century may be part of this natural recovery."
Dr. John R. Christy (leading climate and atmospheric science expert- U. of Alabama in Huntsville) (5)
Global warming alarmists maintain that global temperatures have increased since about A.D. 1860 to the present as the result of the so-called "Industrial Revolution,"-- caused by releases of large amounts of greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide) from manmade sources into the atmosphere causing a runaway "Greenhouse Effect."
Was man really responsible for pulling the Earth out of the Little Ice Age with his industrial pollution? If so, this may be one of the greatest unheralded achievements of the Industrial Age!
Unfortunately, we tend to overestimate our actual impact on the planet. In this case the magnitude of the gas emissions involved, even by the most aggressive estimates of atmospheric warming by greenhouse gases, is inadequate to account for the magnitude of temperature increases. So what causes the up and down cycles of global climate change?