A Brief History of Ice Ages and Warming
Global warming started long before the “Industrial Revolution” and the invention of the internal combustion engine. Global warming began 18,000 years ago as the earth started warming its way out of the Pleistocene Ice Age– a time when much of North America, Europe, and Asia lay buried beneath great sheets of glacial ice.
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 from Asia.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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?
Causes of Global Climate Change
Climate change is controlled primarily by cyclical eccentricities in Earth’s rotation and orbit, as well as variations in the sun’s energy output.
“Greenhouse gases” in Earth’s atmosphere also influence Earth’s temperature, but in a much smaller way. Human additions to total greenhouse gases play a still smaller role, contributing about 0.2% – 0.3% to Earth’s greenhouse effect.
Major Causes of Global Temperature Shifts
(1) Astronomical Causes
11 year and 206 year cycles: Cycles of solar variability ( sunspot activity )
21,000 year cycle: Earth’s combined tilt and elliptical orbit around the Sun ( precession of the equinoxes )
41,000 year cycle: Cycle of the +/- 1.5° wobble in Earth’s orbit ( tilt )
100,000 year cycle: Variations in the shape of Earth’s elliptical orbit ( cycle of eccentricity )
(2) Atmospheric Causes
Heat retention: Due to atmospheric gases, mostly gaseous water vapor (not droplets), also carbon dioxide, methane, and a few other miscellaneous gases– the “greenhouse effect”
Solar reflectivity: Due to white clouds, volcanic dust, polar ice caps
(3) Tectonic Causes
Landmass distribution: Shifting continents (continental drift) causing changes in circulatory patterns of ocean currents. It seems that whenever there is a large land mass at one of the Earth’s poles, either the north pole or south pole, there are ice ages.
Undersea ridge activity: “Sea floor spreading” (associated with continental drift) causing variations in ocean displacement.
For more details see:
Playing with Numbers
Global climate and temperature cycles are the result of a complex interplay between a variety of causes. Because these cycles and events overlap, sometimes compounding one another, sometimes canceling one another out, it is inaccurate to imply a statistically significant trend in climate or temperature patterns from just a few years or a few decades of data.
Unfortunately, a lot of disinformation about where Earth’s climate is heading is being propagated by “scientists” who use improper statistical methods, short-term temperature trends, or faulty computer models to make analytical and anecdotal projections about the significance of man-made influences to Earth’s climate.
During the last 100 years there have been two general cycles of warming and cooling recorded in the U.S. We are currently in the second warming cycle. Overall, U.S. temperatures show no significant warming trend over the last 100 years (1). This has been well – established but not well – publicized.
Each year Government press releases declare the previous year to be the “hottest year on record.” The UN’s executive summary on climate change, issued in January 2001, insists that the 20th century was the warmest in the last millennium. The news media distribute these stories and people generally believed them to be true. However, as most climatologists know, these reports generally are founded on ground-based temperature readings, which are misleading. The more meaningful and precise orbiting satellite data for the same period (which are generally not cited by the press) have year after year showed little or no warming.
Dr. Patrick Michaels has demonstrated this effect is a common problem with ground- based recording stations, many of which originally were located in predominantly rural areas, but over time have suffered background bias due to urban sprawl and the encroachment of concrete and asphalt ( the “urban heat island effect”). The result has been an upward distortion of increases in ground temperature over time(2). Satellite measurements are not limited in this way, and are accurate to within 0.1° C. They are widely recognized by scientists as the most accurate data available. Significantly, global temperature readings from orbiting satellites show no significant warming in the 18 years they have been continuously recording and returning data (1).
A Matter of Opinion
Has manmade pollution in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases caused a runaway Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming?
Before joining the mantra, consider the following:
1. The idea that man-made pollution is responsible for global warming is not supported by historical fact. The period known as the Holocene Maximum is a good example– so-named because it was the hottest period in human history. The interesting thing is this period occurred approximately 7500 to 4000 years B.P. (before present)– long before humans invented industrial pollution.
(Compiled by R.S. Bradley and J.A. Eddy based on J.T. Houghton et al., Climate Change: The IPCC Assessment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990 and published in EarthQuest, vo. 1, 1991. Courtesy of Thomas Crowley, Remembrance of Things Past: Greenhouse Lessons from the Geologic Record)
2. CO2 in our atmosphere has been increasing steadily for the last 18,000 years– long before humans invented smokestacks. Unless you count campfires and intestinal gas, man played no role in the pre-industrial increases.
As illustrated in this chart of Ice Core data from the Soviet Station Vostok in Antarctica, CO2 concentrations in earth’s atmosphere move with temperature. Both temperatures and CO2 have been on the increase for 18,000 years. Interestingly, CO2 lags an average of about 800 years behind the temperature changes– confirming that CO2 is not a primary driver of the temperature changes.
Incidentally, earth’s temperature and CO2 levels today have reached levels similar to a previous interglacial cycle of 120,000 – 140,000 years ago. From beginning to end this cycle lasted about 20,000 years. This is known as the Eemian Interglacial Period and the earth returned to a full-fledged ice age immediately afterward.
3. Total human contributions to greenhouse gases account for only about 0.28% of the “greenhouse effect”. Anthropogenic (man-made) carbon dioxide (CO2) comprises about 0.117% of this total, and man-made sources of other gases (methane, nitrous oxide (NOX), other misc. gases) contributes another 0.163%
Approximately 99.72% of the “greenhouse effect” is due to natural causes — mostly water vapor and traces of other gases, which we can do nothing at all about. Eliminating human activity altogether would have little impact on climate change.
This chart adapted after Nigel Calder illustrates that variations insun activity are generally proportional to both variations in atmospheric CO2and atmospheric temperature.
Put another way, rising Earth temperatures and increasing CO2 may be “effects” and our own sun the “cause”.
(1) A scientific Discussion of Climate Change, Sallie Baliunas, Ph.D., Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Willie Soon, Ph.D., Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
(2) The Effects of Proposals for Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction; Testimony of Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, Professor of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, before the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science, United States House of Representatives
(3) Statement Concerning Global Warming– Presented to the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, June 10, 1997, by Dr. Richard S. Lindzen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(4) Excerpts from,”Our Global Future: Climate Change”, Remarks by Under Secretary for Global affairs, T. Wirth, 15 September 1997. Site maintained by The Globe – Climate Change Campaign
(5) Testimony of John R. Christy to the Committee on Environmental and Public Works, Department of Atmospheric Science and Earth System Science Laboratory, University of Alabama in Huntsville, July 10, 1997.
(6) The Carbon Dioxide Thermometer and the Cause of Global Warming; Nigel Calder,– Presented at a seminar SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research), University of Sussex, Brighton, England, October 6, 1998.
(7) Variation in cosmic ray flux and global cloud coverage: a missing link in solar-climate relationships; H. Svensmark and E. Friis-Christiansen, Journal of Atmospheric and Solar- Terrestrial Physics, vol. 59, pp. 1225 – 1232 (1997).
(8) First International Conference on Global Warming and the Next Ice Age; Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, sponsored by the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society and the American Meteorological Society, August 21-24, 2001.
(9) Ice Core Studies Prove CO2 Is Not the Powerful Climate Driver Climate Alarmists Make It Out to Be; CO2 Science;
Volume 6, Number 26: 25 June 2003; http://www.co2science.org/articles/V6/N26/EDIT.php