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 "glacial" or "glaciations" or colloquially as "ice age"), and intermittent warm periods are called "inter glacial". In the terminology of glaciology, ice age implies the presence of extensive ice sheets in both northern and southern hemispheres. By this definition, we are in an inter glacial period—the Holocene—of the ice age. The ice age began 2.6 million years ago at the start of the Pleistocene epoch, because the Greenland, Arctic, and Antarctic ice sheets still exist
Evidence for ice ages
There are three main types of evidence for ice ages: geological, chemical, and paleontological.
Geological evidence for ice ages comes in various forms, including rock scouring and scratching, glacial moraines, drumlins, valley cutting, and the deposition of till or tillites and glacial erratics. Successive glaciations tend to distort and erase the geological evidence, making it difficult to interpret. Furthermore, this evidence was difficult to date exactly; early theories assumed that the glacials were short compared to the long interglacials. The advent of sediment and ice cores revealed the true situation: glacials are long, interglacials short. It took some time for the current theory to be worked out.
The chemical evidence mainly consists of variations in the ratios of isotopes in fossils present in sediments and sedimentary rocks and ocean sediment cores. For the most recent glacial periods ice cores provide climate proxies from their ice, and atmospheric samples from included bubbles of air. Because water containing heavier isotopes has a higher heat of evaporation, its proportion decreases with colder conditions.This allows a temperature record to be constructed. However, this evidence can be confounded by other factors recorded by isotope ratios.
The paleontological evidence consists of changes in the geographical distribution of fossils. During a glacial period cold-adapted organisms spread into lower latitudes, and organisms that prefer warmer conditions become extinct or are squeezed into lower latitudes. This evidence is also difficult to interpret because it requires sequences of sediments covering a long period of time, over a wide range of latitudes and which are easily correlated; ancient organisms which survive for several million years without change and whose temperature preferences are easily diagnosed; and (3) the finding of the relevant fossils.
Despite the difficulties, analysis of ice core and ocean sediment cores has shown periods of glacials and interglacials over the past few million years. These also confirm the linkage between ice ages and continental crust phenomena such as glacial moraines, drumlins, and glacial erratics. Hence the continental crust phenomena are accepted as good evidence of earlier ice ages when they are found in layers created much earlier than the time range for which ice cores and ocean sediment cores are available.