Published on Feb 16, 2015
An ice age is a period of long-term reduction in the temperature of Earth’s surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental and polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers. Within a long-term ice age, individual pulses of cold climate are termed “glacial periods” (or alternatively “glacials” or “glaciations” or colloquially as “ice age”), and intermittent warm periods are called “interglacials”. Glaciologically, ice age implies the presence of extensive ice sheets in the northern and southern hemispheres. By this definition, we are in an interglacial period—the holocene—of the ice age that began 2.6 million years ago at the start of the Pleistocene epoch, because the Greenland, Arctic, and Antarctic ice sheets still exist.
The causes of ice ages are not fully understood for either the large-scale ice age periods or the smaller ebb and flow of glacial–interglacial periods within an ice age. The consensus is that several factors are important: atmospheric composition, such as the concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane (the specific levels of the previously mentioned gases are now able to be seen with the new ice core samples from EPICA Dome C in Antarctica over the past 800,000 years ); changes in the earth’s orbit around the Sun known as Milankovitch cycles; the motion of tectonic plates resulting in changes in the relative location and amount of continental and oceanic crust on the earth’s surface, which affect wind and ocean currents; variations in solar output; the orbital dynamics of the Earth-Moon system; and the impact of relatively large meteorites, and volcanism including eruptions of supervolcanoes.
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 removes CO2).
Maureen Raymo, William Ruddiman and others propose that the Tibetan and Colorado Plateaus 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.