We hear a lot about positive feedbacks when it comes to global warming. For example: ice reflects solar radiation, so as the ice melts more solar radiation is absorbed which accelerates warming; rising temperatures create more deserts; release of stored methane; water-vapour feedback; etc.

With so many positive feedbacks it would seem that once the earth has flipped out of an ice age it would take an absolutely tremendous amount of change to get us back into one. Yet the explanations given for the onset and offset of ice ages (subtle orbital variations, continental movements) do not seem that great.

So how can these subtle changes ever be enough to flip us back into an ice age?

Do we have long time span climate-models to validate our theories?


2 Answers 2


It is not only Milankovic cycles, these are often overrated.

Starting in the Cretaceous, thoughout the Paleo- and Neogene the world went from a greenhouse to an ice age that culminated in the Pleistocene. Much is attributed to the arrangement of continents (large landmass to the southpole), change in ocean currents, and slow accumulation of ice shields and rising albedo. This is a positive feedback actually, whose reversal (observations from Greenland and recently even Antactica) have led to corrections in climate models, making the projected ocean level rise and arrival of tipping points that will develop their own dynamic even worse. This is very concerning !

But back to the question with two examples, that can be researched:

First, when Antarctica and Australia separated ~35My ago, a circumpolar current developed that cut off the continent from global circulation so that the iceshields could be maintained and more accumulated.

Second, when the isthmus between the Americas closed ~3My ago, ocean currents changed, the gulf stream developed that transports heat and moisture to Europe and north eastern America. The gulf stream can switch states (See: north atlantic deep water (NADW) forming), changing temperature and precipitation patterns, contributing to ice shield build up and retreat in the north.

These are just a few highlights to answer how the earth entered the current ice age, there would be much more to write. Other "ice houses" in earth's history (e.g. Permian glaciation) may have had other causes.

Hope that helped a bit :-)

Edit: but a related, mesmerizing question is: if a hypothetical global ice age really existed, how did the earth find out of that ? The high albedo from a global snow/ice cover would prevent that. Somebody painted it black :-) ?

  • $\begingroup$ Pure speculation: Volcanic activity continues, and with no exposed ocean surface and no life to sink the outputs, volcanic carbon dioxide eventually gets high enough to melt the ice. Almost as soon as it does, life starts sinking the carbon. $\endgroup$
    – Turksarama
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ But complex life is only sparsely available at the end of the Cryogenian, and not at all ~1.5Gy earlier. Today's carbon cycles can not be projected back ... $\endgroup$
    – user18411
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ Complex life is not necessary, only photosynthesis is and it was known to exist. As long as organisms are buried in mud then carbon will be trapped. $\endgroup$
    – Turksarama
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ Increase in biologic activity was the outcome, not the cause of deglaciation. Actually, atmospheric CO2 levels where 3-10 times higher at the end of the Cryogenian due to decreased weathering. An unescabable glaciation is a valid scenario (see below, second link). advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/11/e1600983.full sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012821X17304363 $\endgroup$
    – user18411
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ Short answer the earth likely did not freeze over entirely only a portion of it. giss.nasa.gov/research/features/201508_slushball we still see evidnece of ocean/atmoshereic exchange. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 5:28

Apparently, the forcing of the Milankovitch cycli are enough to cross the tipping point for climate change. Measurements of Vostok ice core data and Milankovitch orbital parameters.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ please expand your answer and include an explanation about why this happens. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 4:47

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