As far as I understand, we are currently living in the Holocene, an interglacial period of the Quaternary glaciation, i.e. the current ice age that has so far lasted 2.6 million years. The Holocene began about 12,000 years ago. While humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, human civilization is almost entirely coterminous with the Holocene.


(A) Are there any generally accepted estimates for how long the Holocene will last?

(B) Is anthropogenic global warming delaying the return to glaciation?

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    $\begingroup$ I think it will be useful to consider the almost certain acceptance of Anthropocene (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene) as the current epoch. In that sense, some of the questions mentioned should be refrained accordingly. $\endgroup$
    – arkaia
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ This research appears to answer (B) in the affirmative: pik-potsdam.de/news/press-releases/… $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 19:29

2 Answers 2


First, great question, though answers are likely to be non specific and speculative.

As far as I understand, we are currently living in the Holocene, an interglacial period of the Quaternary glaciation, i.e. the current ice age that has so far lasted 2.6 million years. The Holocene began about 12,000 years ago. While humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, human civilization is almost entirely coterminous with the Holocene.

As others have said, defining our current period as the Holocene is iffy. Human influence is pretty huge, and perhaps, even as many as 6,000-7,000 years ago the growth of the agricultural revolution, some farm animal domestication and early, though much smaller, deforestation may have played a role in climate, at least, I remember reading that, though a quick google didn't provide a good source, but I've read that. It's probably not consensus though, just some people's opinion.

(A) Are there any generally accepted estimates for how long the Holocene will last?

So, how long? There's 2 very different answers to this.

First one, if we take out the human effect, or, lets say, in the relatively near future we "fix" our CO2 and other human effects on the planet and return the Earth mostly to how it was. Then the answer is kind of simple, we just Look at past warm periods and make an estimate from those.

Without human activity the Holocene would very likely be just another inter-glacial warm period between ice ages in the continuation of the Quaternary with a similar length of time. See chart:enter image description here, If the average length of inter-glacial warm period is about about 20,000 to 40,000 years we can just subtract 11,000 from that and reach a rough estimate.

Or, if you want more accuracy, you can look closely at the 3 orbital cycles and calculate based on that - but I'm not going to do that as it would get more complicated. More on that here.

It's also likely that there would be a cooling period within that time-frame. We can see cooling, like the little ice age, without it being an actual ice age.

When will glaciation resume? Has global warming delayed return to global cooling?

(B) Is anthropogenic global warming delaying the return to glaciation?

First, it's worth pointing out that returning to global cooling and a return to glaciation aren't entirely the same thing. If, lets say, we continue our CO2 footprint/production and reach 450 PPM before we cut back enough to level off for a few decades, then, cut back enough to see the oceans gradually take in CO2 and reduce the levels in the air, we could see a gradual global cooling within 100 years or so - maybe, provided the higher ocean temperatures and Albedo drop due to loss of ice cover didn't created a new equilibrium. But in general, the earth can go through cooling periods without glaciation, so those 2 questions are similar but not entirely the same.

But in general, calculating glaciation with the human factor, it's a much harder question, especially since we can't see the future and how high CO2 levels will get.

Modern ice ages are defined as an advancing glaciation across a significant range of the Northern land, which, as pointed out above, coincides well with Milankovich cycles, but to actually have that happen, you need a few things in place. Milankovich cycles don't cause ice ages all by themselves, cause they were there during non ice ages too.

The modern ice age cycle only started about 2.6 million years ago and it is thought to have been brought about by the formation of Isthmus of Panama about 5 million years ago, which separated a current between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which helped the arctic ocean cool and freeze over. Shortly after that Isthmus formed, the Earth began to cool. See here (chart from Milankovich link above).

Modern ice ages also coincide with falling CO2 levels, and while the CO2 drop follows the temperature drop, there's a reason for that. Colder oceans hold more CO2, so the Atmospheric CO2 drops when temperature drops. This serves as a feedback loop where cooling leads to more cooling and that's part of why ice ages are as big as they are. Albedo is another feedback loop, so the trigger to get an ice age started is actually pretty small. The Orbital cycles of the Earth are thought to only contribute about 1 degree of cooling in and of themselves and the other 9 or so degrees of global cooling between peak ice age and average Holocene is thought to be caused by these feedback mechanisms, primarily albedo and drops in atmospheric CO2.

So, there's 2 questions to ask as to whether man made global warming will prevent the next ice age and perhaps future ice ages. We know that the Milankovich cycles will continue, but will CO2 be low enough for the cycle to lead to glaciation, and, how fast will CO2 levels drop, so, over the next 10,000 - 30,000 years. Nobody knows the answer to those questions.

Looking at the last 800,000 years or so, based on ice-core samples, warm periods between ice ages you usually have about 260-280 PPM and peak ice age periods, about 180-200 PPM CO2 with the ranges in between, mostly during transitional periods. When these changes occur, most of the CO2 is believed to be absorbed into or released from the oceans, though I see no reason why a smaller portion of the change couldn't be driven by changes in living bio-mass corresponding to the changes in temperature, ocean size and grow-able land area.

By burning fossil fuels, we've added carbon that was effectively removed from the Carbon cycle. For a rough calculation for how much, every year we add a bit over 30 billion tons of CO2 by burning fossil fuels every year.

The Atmosphere, at 270 PPM with a mass of the Atmosphere, about 5.148 x 1018 KG is about 2,320 billion tons. Since the industrial revolution, CO2 PPM has increased to about 400 PPM, which is an increase of about 1,030 billion tons (atmosphere only) with roughly about 400 billion tons (rough estimate), having been absorbed into the oceans.

Oceans are estimated to store about 50 times the CO2 than the Atmosphere, Source, so assuming that's accurate, Oceans currently store over 110,000 billion tons of CO2 and since the industrial revolution, we've added (ballpark) 1,400 billion tons from burning fossil fuels - about a 1.2 - 1.3% increase to the total CO2 in the Oceans, Air and Land-biosphere. That's the crux of the question, what effect will that have.

Over enough time, like, 10,000-30,000 years when the next ice age might be due, the oceans could absorb most of the atmospheric CO2 and the effects could be fairly small. But as the Earth warms and Oceans warm and warming oceans increases the Atmospheric CO2 cause oceanic absorption drops. With warmer oceans there will be a new equilibrium and with that in mind, it's entirely possible that the new atmospheric CO2 equilibrium, if left to it's own devices, might already be sufficient to prevent ice ages for a long time, perhaps a few hundred thousand years.

Predicting atmospheric CO2 levels 10,000 to 30,000 years from now, for all practical purposes, impossible, and that's what we'd need to know to estimate if we've stopped the next ice age or not. What we have done is increased the amount of CO2 in the biosphere of earth by about 1.2–1.3% and since we continue to burn fossil fuels, we're likely to have created an increase of 2% before alternatives are in place, perhaps a bit more than that.

All of this, however, is probably irrelevant, cause we have some ability to trap CO2. It's not easy, but we can do it and if, as our technology improves and we begin a gradual CO2 trapping program, we could re-start the next ice age in 10,000 years or so, assuming that's what we want to do. Now, I don't mean to make light of the CO2 problem cause we appear to be facing very big and real issues over the next 20-50-100 years and that's much harder to avoid at this point, but over 10,000 years, we could probably fix our CO2 situation and bring the Earth back into the ice age cycle, or, we could use CO2 to avoid future ice ages if that's preferred. Collecting and trapping 1–2 trillion tons of fossil fuel generated CO2 isn't easy and we don't have nearly the technology to do that today, but over 10,000 years I feel pretty confident that we could be able to do it, provided we keep progressing technologically.

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    $\begingroup$ +1; great answer. A note: I'm all for defensive reduction of anthropogenic forcing in relation to global warming, but I think active measures to "bring the Earth back into the ice age cycle" would be extremely dangerous and unpredictable. While global warming may be a serious and difficult issue, a return to full-scale glaciation would be cataclysmic, and likely cause an abrupt end to the first epoch of human civilization, if not the end of humanity. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 3:27
  • $\begingroup$ @HalfdanFaber I agree with you to an extent. Certainly if an ice age was to start happening now, it would be a big problem for us, even though it might take large glaciers 1,000 years or so to form, the slow process would still be problematic. But, counter point, we have the means to prevent an ice age - just burn coal and oil or release methane into the air. I'm not sure we have the means to prevent global warming because we're too dependent on fossil fuels. It's a much more real and immediate problem. $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ An interesting footnote in the whole "ice ages are bad" argument is, it depends where you are. In the middle east, and over much of hot-Sahara Africa, ice ages are good. The falling oceans provide more land (where land isn't covered with ice) and more oxygen in the colder oceans might provide more plankton and ultimately more fish too. If we ever do figure out climate control, which maybe could happen in a few decades, the next great debate will be, who gets to decide what a good climate is, as opinions will vary based on location. $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ The term "climate engineering" is becoming fashionable. This reminds me of the 70's and 80's when biologists thought they had ecosystems figured out and in their optimism attempted various forms of ecological intervention (introducing new predator species, etc.). Results were usually entirely unexpected and often locally catastrophic. As it turned out, even the ecosystem evolution of a small lake is effectively non-computable with current technology. Hopefully, before we attempt global climate-engineering we will remember the lessons from the theory of complex dynamical systems. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 2:59

A) Some would argue that the Holocene is over, and we are now entering the 'Anthropocene', a new era hugely impacted by human activities. Another view is that the Holocene will be over when the polar (including Greenland) ice reaches a new equilibrium state - which is not in the foreseeable future. Technically there is no way to predict the 'official' end of the Holocene.

B) Major glaciations are somewhat infrequent in the history of planet Earth. There have only been about 7 +/-1 glaciations, depending upon how you define 'major'. The current glaciation is about over, and human induced global warming will see to it that we are not just entering a mere inter-glacial interlude. On top of human induced global warming there is another very long-term global warming caused by the sun's changing radiance. Since the mid pre-Cambrian the sun's composition has changed from less hydrogen to more helium, which has increased the sun's energy output by about 20 to 25%. This change will continue at a slow but accelerating rate, such that the the planet is getting progressively warmer, and we will never again see another major glaciation on planet Earth.

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    $\begingroup$ Major global glaciations may be infrequent over geological history, but they are not infrequent in recent geological history. In fact, setting aside the influence of mankind on climate, the recent trend for world temperature is down not up. As far as I know there is no evidence that the recent (in geological time) period of glaciation is over. Before we started interfering with climate, experts expected more glaciation as the current interglacial period ended. $\endgroup$
    – matt_black
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ The previous interglacial period (about 120K years ago) had a higher temperature peak than the Holocene, so how can you conclude that the Quaternary glaciation is now about over? Without any evidence to the contrary, wouldn't the apriori assumption be that we are halfway into the Quaternary glaciation, and it thus should be expected to last on average another 2.6M years (albeit with high variance)? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 4:04
  • $\begingroup$ @HalfdanFaber, he's saying the Holocene is over due to human effects. That's valid and I think accurate. Also, the Holocene is, or, I should say, was expected to end in 10,000-30,000 years anyway. Glaciers and another ice age are expected to come back (though man made climate change might prevent that). A new ice age would end the Holocene, but not end the Quaternary glaciation period, of which the Holocene is just a warm period in the middle of. $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Gordon, I voted you up, but your answer is missing a lot of important detail and it has a few errors. Given that ice ages are currently on roughly a 100,000 year cycle (granted, Man made climate change could change that), but since that's the recent cycle, I'm not sure what you mean by ice reaches a new equilibrium state, since the ice fluctuates with the orbit. How do you define an equilibrium in a cyclic system? $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 5:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Gordon Strange, finally when you say "the planet is getting progressively warmer, and we will never again see another major glaciation on planet Earth" - er, not really. The formation of the Ithsmus of Panama has led to a gradual cooling of the planet over the last 5 million years. Prior to that, changes in CO2 had an effect in cooling. It's likely, in 20 million years or so, as Antarctica drifts into warmer waters, ice ages may stop, but we're likely to see quite a few ice ages between now and then. Lots of moving parts to this question. $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 5:59

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