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Pleistocene Climate Change

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In the Pleistocene Epoch, the most recent trend of global cooling happened, which formed an ice age. As a result, many ice sheets, ice caps, and valley glaciers increased in volume. The end of the Pleistocene was marked by long stadials and the mass extinction of many large mammals. Let's take a more in-depth look at the Pleistocene Epoch and Pleistocene climate change.

Pleistocene: The first epoch of the Quaternary Period, between the Pliocene Epoch and the Holocene Epoch.

What is the Pleistocene Epoch?

The Pleistocene Epoch is the first epoch of the Quaternary Period. It came immediately before the current Holocene Epoch.

The Pleistocene Epoch is known as the Ice Age due to its numerous glacial-interglacial cycles. The last glacial maximum was the Devensian, which occurred approximately 18,000 years ago.

The highlighted series in the table below explains the Pleistocene Epoch in the context of time period classifications.

EraPeriodEpoch
CenozoicQuaternaryHolocene
TertiaryPleistocene
Miocene
Oligocene
...

The last period of glacial advance is known as the Loch Lomond Stadial. This occurred between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago, marking the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.

The Pleistocene Epoch is arguably the most influential compared to other ice ages as it has been the most instrumental in shaping the current topography of the world’s landscapes. This is due to temperature fluctuations taking place over approximately two million years.

Climate change characteristics of the Pleistocene Epoch

Some of the most important climate change characteristics of the Pleistocene Epoch include:

  • Significant temperature fluctuations over two million years (approximate time of the Pleistocene Epoch) and subsequent multiple glacial-interglacial cycles.
  • The ice extent at each glacial was different.
  • Fluctuations within each major glacial, which included: relatively short-lived pulses of ice advance known as stadials, and warmer periods of glacial retreat known as interstadials.

The earth’s geological state over time

Current geological evidence suggests that the earth is around 4.6 billion years old. Throughout its history, the earth has been fluctuating between two dominant states known as the ‘Greenhouse Earth’ and the ‘Icehouse Earth’ – the result of various changes in the global climate.

The Icehouse Earth is a period in which large ice sheets are present, e.g., glaciers.The Greenhouse Earth is a period in which no large/significant ice sheets are present.

Within the Icehouse and Greenhouse Earth classes, it is important to identify periods where glaciers advance (increase in size due to cooling factors) or retreat (decrease in size largely due to warming factors). Periods of glacial advance are known as glacials, whereas periods of glacial retreat are known as interglacials.

These variations are due to long- and short-term variations in the global climate. See our explanation on the Causes of Climate Change for more info!

Glacial classification

Era, period, and epoch classify the time scale of glacial periods. This is shown below:

EraPeriodEpoch
CenozoicQuaternaryHolocene
TertiaryPleistocene
Miocene
Oligocene
...

Eras

Eras are the second-longest measures of geological time (second to aeons). Significant events in the earth’s history, like mass extinction events, separate eras. The Cenozoic Era (our current era) is separated from the Mesozoic Era (the era before) by a major extinction event caused by an asteroid impact 66 million years ago.

The asteroid impact put an end to the dinosaur dominance over land animals, giving space for mammals to rise and take up their niches. For this reason, the Cenozoic Era is also known as the age of mammals because they became the dominant land animals.

Periods

Periods are further subdivisions of geological time. These are usually defined by the times when specific systems of rocks were formed. We are currently in the Quaternary Period, which is characterised by many glacial advances and retreat cycles.

Epochs

Epochs are further divisions of geological times and are subdivisions of periods. Significant changes in rock layers separate epochs. Our current epoch is the Holocene, which began approximately 11,500 years ago after the last glacial period - the Pleistocene Epoch.

What started our current epoch was the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction event in which many mammals became extinct (sabre-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, mammoths, and giant armadillos). Note that these are all large mammals (the primary victims of the Pleistocene extinction).

How are glaciers and climate change related?

Glaciers and climate change impact one another and are closely related in terms of their behaviour. A critical piece of evidence for global warming is the increased rates of glacial retreat/decreased mass balances of glaciers.

Globally, the mass balance of ice sheets is decreasing, which shows increased ablation due to increased global temperatures.

Glaciers are also related to many feedback loops associated with climate change. One example is the Increased Albedo Feedback Loop, where increased surface ice increases the albedo effect. Consequently, a greater amount of solar radiation is reflected rather than absorbed by the earth’s surface, causing a decrease in overall temperatures. This then causes increased levels of surface ice through an increase in accumulative processes, repeating the cycle.

Conversely, the opposite feedback loop may also take place:

Increase in surface temperatures -> increased ablation and less surface ice-> reduced albedo effect -> less reflection of solar radiation -> increase in surface temperatures.

Climate change and the Pleistocene Epoch

One of the most significant examples of the relation between climate change and glaciation is the Pleistocene Epoch.

During this time, significant temperature fluctuations caused glacial/interglacial cycles over about two million years. Within each glacial cycle, there were further cycles of stadials and interstadials. The ice extent during the Pleistocene Epoch was significantly larger in high latitude areas, such as the Arctic Basin, Alaska, and other North American Basins.

The root of the fluctuations in ice extent within the Pleistocene Epoch was a combination of long-term causes of climate change, such as the Milankovitch cycles and tectonics, and short-term causes of climate change as ENSO cycles or solar output variation.

Variation in ice sheet distribution between the Pleistocene Epoch and current time

At the height of the Pleistocene ice extent, the ice cover was three times higher than present-day volumes. The two dominant ice sheets of our present day were only marginally greater at the height of the Pleistocene. The most significant differences were higher glacial volumes at high altitudes and high latitudes. The most notable changes were in the North American Basin, which includes the Arctic ice sheet, Alaska, and other North American ice covers.

Evidence of the Pleistocene Epoch in the UK

The evidence of the Pleistocene Epoch in the UK consists of glacial landforms formed during the ice age. This evidence is made up of three different categories of glacial landforms: depositional, erosional, and meltwater.

See our explanations on Depositional Landforms and Erosional Landforms.

Depositional evidence

Here are two examples of depositional evidence.

Drumlins

These are large mound-like structures that directly show glacial deposition. They can be used to reconstruct former ice mass extent and movement using methods such as till fabric analysis or identifying stoss and lee slopes. They can be found in the Lake District, e.g. Vale of Eden in Cumbria, and other areas with significant ice masses during the Ice Age.

Erratics

These are boulder-like bodies of sediment not commonly found in the surrounding area. This indicates that they were carried from an area containing the material by a glacier and dropped off when the ice melted. These can also be found in the Lake District, e.g. the Bowder Stone.

Erosional Evidence

Evidence of erosion includes glacial features such as corries, arêtes, glacial troughs, roches moutonêes, crags, tails, and loch and lochan landscapes. Evidence is found in the Cairngorms (Scotland), Snowdonia (Wales), and the Lake District (England).

Meltwater Evidence

Meltwater channels and glacial till (which can be analysed via till fabric analysis) can be found in Newtondale in North Yorkshire.

Pleistocene climate change Lake District England StudySmarterLake District, UK. pixabay.com

Pleistocene Climate Change - Key takeaways

  • We are currently in the Cenozoic Era, Quaternary Period in the Holocene Epoch.
  • The earth has gone through many Icehouse-Greenhouse earth cycles. Within these, there have been cycles of stadials and interstadials.
  • Glaciers and climate change are interlinked via the feedback loop that affects each other’s respective statesand rates of change.
  • The recent changes in glacial mass balance are evidence of global warming.
  • The last Ice Age occurred in the Pleistocene Epoch.
  • Ice extent was considerably greater in the Pleistocene Epoch.
  • We can use glacial landforms as evidence of the Pleistocene Epoch in the UK.

Pleistocene Climate Change

In the Pleistocene Epoch, the most recent trend of global cooling happened, which formed an ice age. As a result, many ice sheets, ice caps, and valley glaciers increased in volume. The end of the Pleistocene was marked by long stadials and the mass extinction of many large mammals.

The Pleistocene ended about 11,700 years ago when the earth entered the Holocene Epoch. The Pleistocene lasted an estimated two million years.

The Pleistocene is called an ice age because it was a time of cold global temperatures, and there was a continuous cycle of glacial advance and retreat. Despite the fact there were times of glacial retreat, the cyclical decrease in ice volume doesn’t mean that the ice sheets disappeared - the volume of ice was still significantly higher than the present day.

The Pleistocene marked an important time in two ways. It is the most influential epoch compared to other ice ages because it shaped the current topography of the world’s landscape. It is also significant in the field of evolutionary biology because Homo Sapiens evolved during the Pleistocene Epoch. By the end of it, humans could be found in almost all parts of the planet.

Final Pleistocene Climate Change Quiz

Question

Define Icehouse Earth and Greenhouse Earth.

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Answer

Icehouse Earth is when there are large ice masses present. No or minimal ice masses are present in Greenhouse Earth.

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Question

Define stadial and interstadial.


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Answer

Stadials are short-term periods of ice advance, whereas interstadials are short-term periods of ice retreat.

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Question

Summarise the difference between ice extent in the Pleistocene Epoch and the current day.


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Answer

Ice cover during the Pleistocene Epoch was three times higher than the present day. 

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Question

Name two depositional landforms that are evidence of the Pleistocene Epoch in the UK.


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Answer

Drumlins and erratics.

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Question

Name two erosional landforms that are evidence of the Pleistocene Epoch in the UK.


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Answer

Roches moutonnées and glacial troughs.

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Question

What is the effect that is increased when there is an increased presence of surface ice?


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Answer

The albedo effect.

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Question

Name an example of climate change affecting a glacial period.


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Answer

The multiple glacial and interglacial cycles during the Pleistocene Epoch.

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What caused the glacial/interglacial as well as the stadial/interstadial cycles during the Pleistocene Epoch?


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Answer

 Combinations of long- and short-term climate change causes.

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Question

What does eccentricity measure?

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Answer

Eccentricity measures the earth’s departure from a perfectly circular orbit.

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Question

What is the name of the phase where the earth is closest to the sun?

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Answer

The name of the phase where the earth is closest to the sun is known as perihelion.

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What is the name of the phase where the earth is farthest from the sun?


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Answer

The phase where the earth is farthest from the sun is known as aphelion.

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Question

How long does it take for the earth to move from perihelion to aphelion or vice-versa?


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Answer

It takes 100,000 years for the earth to move from perihelion to aphelion and vice-versa.

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Question

What is obliquity?


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Answer

The angle of the earth’s axis with respect to its orbital plane

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What is correlated with larger obliquity angles?


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Answer

Interstadials are correlated with larger obliquity angles.

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What is precession?

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Precession is the shift in the earth’s angle on its axis relative to its center.

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What are the long-term effects of precession?

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Answer

Greater precession makes seasonal contrasts between the two hemispheres more extreme.

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What temperature changes are Milankovitch cycles immediately responsible for?


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Answer

Milankovitch cycles are immediately responsible for 0.5 to 1 degrees Celsius temperature changes. 

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Why are Milankovitch cycles relevant despite their small immediate effect?

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Answer

Feedback loops magnify the effects of these temperature changes.

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Question

What effect causes an increase in reflected solar rays?

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Answer

The albedo effect.

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Question

Name an event when tectonics caused a long-term change in the global climate.

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Answer

The collision of the two American plates blocked the thermohaline circulatory currents and formed the Panama Isthmus.

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Name the estimated range of CO2ppm throughout the earth’s history.

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Answer

200ppm and 5000ppm.

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What do increased sunspots indicate?

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Answer

Increased sunspots indicate increased solar activity.

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What is the Maunder Minimum?


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Answer

The Maunder Minimum is a period of decreased solar activity.

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What are the effects of El Niño?


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Answer

  • Increased precipitation on the western coasts of the Americas, in the southern USA, and in parts of western Europe. 
  • Decreased precipitation in eastern Australia and west Pacific, southern Europe, North Africa, and parts of southern Europe.

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What are the effects of La Niña?

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  • Increased precipitation in eastern Australia and west Pacific, southern Europe, North Africa, and parts of southern Europe. 
  • Decreased precipitation on the western coasts of the Americas, in southern USA, and in parts of western Europe.

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Name a volcanic event responsible for significant cooling.

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Answer

Mount Tambora, 1815. Temperatures decreased between 0.4-0.7 degrees Celsius globally.

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What is the estimated direct contribution of solar output variation on global temperatures?


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The estimated direct contribution of solar output variation on global temperatures is a decrease in temperature of up to 0.3 degrees Celsius. 

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How can volcanic eruptions cause a change in climate?

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Answer

Global dimming blocks solar radiation and hence the earth’s direct source of heat is inhibited.

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What is the time period of ENSO cycles?


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Answer

The time period of ENSO cycles is two to eight years.

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