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An ice age is a period of colder global temperatures and recurring glacial expansion capable of lasting hundreds of millions of years. Humans developed ificantly during the most recent glaciation period, emerging as the dominant land animal afterward as megafauna such as the wooly mammoth went extinct. Capable of lasting hundreds of millions of years, these periods are interspersed with regular warmer interglacial intervals in which at least one major ice sheet is present. Earth is currently in the midst of an ice age, as the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets remain intact despite moderate temperatures. These global cooling periods begin when a drop in temperature prevents snow from fully melting in some areas.


Ice agealso called glacial ageany geologic period during which thick ice sheets cover vast areas of land. Such periods of large-scale glaciation may last several million years and drastically reshape surface features of entire continents. A of major ice ages have occurred throughout Earth history.

The earliest known took place during Precambrian time dating back more than million years.

Timeline of glaciation

The most recent periods of widespread glaciation occurred during the Pleistocene Epoch 2. A lesser, recent glacial stage called the Little Ice Age began in the 16th century and advanced and receded intermittently over three centuries in Europe and many other regions. Its maximum development was reached aboutat which time glaciers were more widespread on Earth than at any time since the last major ice age ended about 11, years ago.

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Glaciers and glaciation in antarctica and beyond

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A polar map shows five great ice caps, or centres, from which the ice moved outward during the Ice Age and to which it later retreated.

on This Topic. The orange, pink, green, and purple areas are those that were covered by ice sheets in the past.

The Kansan and Nebraskan sheets overlapped almost the same areas, and the Wisconsin and Illinoisan sheets covered approximately the same territory. An area at the junction of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois was never entirely covered with ice.

Introduction to dating glacial sediments

Europe, like North America, had four periods of glaciation. Successive ice caps reached limits that differed only slightly. The area covered by ice at any time is shown in white. Learn More in these related Britannica articles:.

In fact, expansion of the Antarctic…. The climatic modulations that occur at shorter scales include such periods as the Little Ice Age from the early 14th to the midth centuries,…. The great Quaternary ice ages, which came later, were very important in altering the distribution of animals over a large part of the world, but migrations occurred long before. History at your fingertips.

Many methods of dating glacial sediments

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This information is vital for numerical models, and answers questions about how dynamic ice sheets are, and how responsive they are to changes in atmospheric and oceanic temperatures.