Biogeosciences Research Spotlight

Characterizing Interglacial Periods over the Past 800,000 Years

Researchers identified 11 different interglacial periods over the past 800,000 years, but the interglacial period we are experiencing now may last an exceptionally long time.

Source: Reviews of Geophysics


Global climate patterns have undergone a remarkable shift in the past 600,000 to 1.2 million years. Before the transition, glacial cycles, consisting of cold ice ages and milder interludes, typically lasted about 40,000 years—but those weaker cycles gave way to longer-lasting icy eras with cycles lasting roughly 100,000 years. In between the cold ice ages are periods of thawing and warming known as interglacial periods, during which sea levels rise and ice retreats. Here Past Interglacials Working Group of PAGES identifies and compares interglacial periods over the past 800,000 years, including our current era.

Glacial periods give way to interglacials on some occasions when the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solar insolation (the amount of solar radiation received by Earth’s surface) increases alongside corresponding decreases in ice volume and increases in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Although the end of an interglacial period is a slow process requiring the sequential reversal of these conditions, the onset of an interglacial period can be relatively fast. Within the glacial periods, there are secondary fluctuations. These are known as interstadial and stadial periods, which occur when glaciers retreat and advance, respectively.

Despite the occurrence of interstadials and stadials, the researchers evaluated the overall strength of interglacials. In total, the researchers identified 11 different interglacials during the study period. In addition, using sea surface temperature and other data, they found that two interglacial periods in particular—marine isotopic stage (MIS) 5 and MIS 11–were particularly strong almost everywhere.

Although most interglacials typically last about 10,000 to 30,000 years, the researchers suggest that the current epoch—the Holocene—may last much longer because of the increased levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases resulting from human activity. The authors predict that this current interglacial period won’t give way to a glacial period for another 50,000 years or so. The only way the current interglacial could end earlier is if CO2 levels were reduced to well below preindustrial levels. (Reviews of Geophysics, doi:10.1002/2015RG000482, 2015)

—Cody Sullivan, Writer Intern

Citation: Sullivan, C. (2016), Characterizing interglacial periods over the past 800,000 years, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO047001. Published on 2 March 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
  • David Birch

    Absolutely correct Ken.

  • David Birch

    Yes you are correct we are heading into the next glaciation period CO2 lags behind temp around 800 years so we will now see a decline into colder climates globally, people need to look at the history here instead of listening to propaganda, during the last 1 million years the natural cycle has played out every 100,000 years, with interglaciation every 80,000 years if we look at the data time is up.prepare for a cooling climate folks.

  • Austin

    You must remember that we have had these Milankovitch cycles even when we were outside of ice age times, e.g., the Miocene, the entire Mesozoic, the Permian. These cycles do not matter for causing ice ages if CO2 levels are high enough. There is a threshold level of CO2 that once reached will not allow the effect of the Milankovitch cycles to cause polar ice.

    • R. Kooi

      Source please….rather than you theorizing and thinking and no nothingism.

    • R. Kooi

      SOURCE for this statement??

      This is a GROSS misinterpretation of science.

  • davidlaing

    The driving factors in the glacial/interglacial cycle are explosive volcanism, which causes global cooling by producing sulfuric acid aerosols in the stratosphere, and non-explosive volcanism, which emits hydrogen chloride and hydrogen bromide, which deplete the ozone layer, letting in more solar ultraviolet-B radiation to warm things up. Both eruptive styles are tied to Earth’s plate tectonic system, which, in turn, is tied to Milankovitch orbital rhythms through gravitational effects. Carbon dioxide has very little effect on Earth’s temperature, as was experimentally demonstrated by Knut Angstrom 116 years ago.

    • R. Kooi

      You are at least RIGHT ONCE in history.

      That’s once in 4.5 billion years.

  • Prospector

    So, the news is good. If the CO2/T hypothesis is accurate, we should maintain high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 to stave off the inevitable crush of the next period of glaciation.

  • Thinkingman2025

    They’d better hope this interglacial period lasts a very long time. I’d rather live in a warm period than a cold one. I suspect the majority of Earth’s population would agree. Were a glacial period to start now, a lot of people would either be forced to migrate south, or die.

    • joulesbeef

      the interglacial Holocene looked like it was set to start to end 2000 years ago, and this reversed about 150 years ago, coinciding with the industrial revolution. check the wiki for the holocene and look at the graph, you can see the 2000 years of cooling.. thats not to say we would be in glacier period right now, just we are already slowing down the end of the holocene, which btw matches our current tilt decline.

      • Thinkingman2025

        I know. and the solar cycles seem to be weakening as well. Some say orbital parameters aid the onset of glacial periods, but right now, those oppose such cooling, so maybe we’ll stay warm for a few thousand years more.

        • R. Kooi

          You are not telling the truth
          …..All the Causes of Glaciations are ON GOING

          “….They calculate that, thanks to Earth, the sun’s rotation rate is slowing by 3 milliseconds per century (0.00003 second per year). According to their explanation, the distance between the Earth and sun is growing ….”

          “….Currently the Earth’s axial obliquity is at about 23.5 degrees — roughly in the middle of the cycle — and is in a decreasing phase….”

          …….We Should be in a new Ice Age…..continuing the downward slide of temps from the LOW of the 1700’s
          WHAT TERMINATED THE GLACIATION, WHAT TERMINATED EARTH’S most powerful natural cycle…the ice age ? ?

          Skeptics and Deniers are awfully good at asking questions,
          but they have BEEN UNABLE TO OFFER A scientifically based explanation for the DRAMATIC TURN AROUND in NATURAL EARTH CYCLES.

          THE ENHANCED GREEN HOUSE EFFECT does explain the reversal of Earth’s most Powerful natural cycle.


        • R. Kooi

          Provide some source for this ridiculous claim !

          Other than your need to tell a whopper to justify your Religious Faith in Anti Science and Anti Intellectual Atheism.

        • R. Kooi

          The Solar Cycle has been slightly weakened for most of the last half century…….
          ….all the while Temperatures have been rising.

          How inconvenient for your ideological mouthings .
          Almost a religious ardor based on the belief in an ” invisible Trump-Force ” ! !

          Another world for it is “ignorance”.

          The next time your are invited to the White House say “hello” to Donnie Dementia.

          You know the guy that knows more than the Generals..with “one of the biggest brains” !

          • Thinkingman2025

            Listen, buddy, I am a veteran research meteorologist, and I don’t swallow the kool-aid that most climate alarmists on either side say. We have been in a warming hiatus for about 20 years, according to the observations, in spite of rapidly increasing CO2 concentrations, so I don’t buy the argument that CO2 caused the warming. There have also been late-season frosts, freezes, and snowfalls in all the major grain gowing areas in the last two years, so we might just be entering into a new cooler period like the Little Ice Age, but that doesn’t imply we will see a mile of ice over N. Ohio anytime soon, either. The CAUSE of the major glacial advances in the last 3 million years has not been determined with any certainty.

            • Mountain Guardian

              We do see an increased amount of volcanic ash deposits towards the end of interglacial and the beginning of glacial periods in marine sediments. Some scientists are theorizing that the unloading of the ice sheet weight and the increase of oceanic plate weight increases volcanic instability and thereby increases the amount of volcanic ash in the atmosphere which aids in cooling off average global temps. The careful balance of material over the high pressure of volcanic gas appears to be affected by the lifting of the continental plates by several feet over thousands of years. This is only one of the many mechanisms that help to lead us back into glacial maximum periods, but it is a pretty powerful one. I find myself far more worried about surviving the potential of a super volcano eruption over the next few hundreds or few thousand years and then the human survival of several billion people leaving the northern hemisphere and invading the equatorial regions and the southern hemisphere. I think dealing with the increase in temps over the next few decades or hundreds of years will be a pretty minor thing compared to what comes after that….

      • Tyler Durden

        It was not reversed by the industrial revolution. It was caused by reduced solar activity and it was reversed by a return to normal solar activity. The earth’s orbit around the sun has to be a certain shape before this interglacial is capable of ending ending (which is in about 5 to 15 thousand years.

        Also, greenhouse gasses will not save you from the return of the glacial period. There was an Ice Age about 450 million years ago (with glacials and interglacials and everything…just like this Ice Age). BUT!!!, CO2 levels were 5x higher in that Ice Age than they are right now in this Ice Age. Insanely high CO2 levels of 2000pmm+ made absolutely no difference then. Why would the current tiny fraction (compared to that) make any difference?

        The Glaciers will once again engulf a third of the planet, bulldozing everything in it’s path, just like it has the previous 23 times. Billions will die. And the only way to stop the end of the interglacial would be:

        1. Stop the Earth’s orbit from being eccentric.

        Or, you could just end the current Ice Age by:
        1. Moving Antarctica away from the south pole
        2. Making space between northern continents so that warmer currents are not obstructed from reaching the Arctic.

        If you cant do that then we’re f*cked.

        • Tern

          It is said that formation of Panama began the ice age, by cutting an ocean current that somehow kept the world warmer and stopped the Arctic freezing. I’ve not grasped the detail of how that worked, but … It means another way to end the ice age should be to build another Panama canal and design it such that it conveys and aids a current.

          • David Birch

            We can not disagree that during the maunder minimum sun spot activity was at zero, the dalton minima was very low solar activity, if we combine these two factors (Milankovitch) then we are looking likely to enter into the next glaciation.

            • R. Kooi

              “IF WE COMBINE” sounds like you are attempting to make an Angel Food Cake….in your mind………..lets imagine ….if we do this… scientific evidence …but what if????

              We have already gone thru one 11 yr. average solar minimum……..2007-2009

              • David Birch

                Haha we go through solar minimum and maximum every cycle, my point was look at the sun spot activity (facts) and we have had no temperature rise as you say since 1998, why do you feel the need to use capitals when you talk, there are multiple combinations in the changes we see on earth, solar cycles, planetary orbits, volcano’s magnetic anomalies, cloud nucleation, COMBINATIONS!!! one grain of sand doesn’t make a beach, CO2 does not create global warming look at the historical data instead of tin hat sites and you will see the hype is over.

                • R. Kooi

                  You have been thinking again…..I keep telling you that you need to stop thinking ’cause you are NO GOOD AT IT…..start reading what the experts are thinking!

                  “….As supplier of almost all the energy in Earth’s climate,
                  the sun has a strong influence on climate.

                  A comparison of sun and climate over the past 1150 years found temperatures closely match solar activity (Usoskin 2005).

                  However, after 1975, temperatures rose while solar activity showed little to no long-term trend. This led the study to conclude, “…during these last 40+ years
                  the solar total irradiance,
                  solar UV irradiance and
                  cosmic ray flux has NOT shown any significant secular trend,
                  so that, at least, this most recent warming episode MUST have another source.”

                  In fact,
                  a number of independent measurements of solar activity indicate the sun has shown a SLIGHT COOLING trend since 1960,
                  over the same period that global temperatures have been warming.

                  Over the last 50+ years of global warming, sun and climate have been moving in opposite directions.

                  An analysis of solar trends concluded that the sun has actually contributed a slight cooling influence in recent decades .
                  ( GOOGLE Lockwood 2008)…..”

            • Tern

              Do you have grounds to think there were no sunspot minima in the time before Panama joined up?

              • David Birch

                Panama canal was built 1903-1914, if we look back to the maunder minimum in 1647-1715 we had zero sun spots. so man cutting a pathway through the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was in my opinion unlikely to interfere with the climate equilibrium.

                • Tern

                  OMG !! How could you possibly think I meant the building of the canal, when your discussion already referred to the Maunder minimum before that? I meant before Panama joined up in nature. When the 2 Americas had no land connection. Why did sunspot minima not cause glaciations then?

        • David Birch

          all of the last 400,000 years of glaciation have happened at the minimum phase of eccentricity interglacial at maximum if the last minimum was 40,000 years ago then we are already in the decline to glaciation.

        • R. Kooi

          Orbit and Axis caused ice ages historically.
          As Temperatures fell, plants and animals etc died…creating CO2 & Methane….NOT causing glaciations. SO YOU SEE, CO2 LAGGED BEHIND!

          THIS inter glacial warm period (( GOOGLE …. HOLOCENE OPTIMUM ))
          6500-8000 YEARS AGO.


          ((GOOGLE Malinkovitch Cycles to learn what CAUSED GLACIATIONS Past))

          TEMPERATURES have been Falling in spits and spurts since then.
          That is why the Medieval Warm Period was so noted in history…cause it stood in contrast to the falling temperatures in the N. Atlantic and Europe.

          A Chunk of the last 1000 years is CALLED THE LITTLE ICE AGE.

          ICE AGE cause it cooled more quickly.
          LITTLE cause it ENDED !

          I read Press Releases from COAL & OIL firms along with 2 Scientists they funded and popularized….declare we are on the VERGE of a NEW ICE AGE/ GLACIATION back in the 70’s.


          Even IF we are due for a NEW MAUNDER SOLAR MINIMUM….the energy subtracted from EARTH’s Energy Balance would be less that 2 YEARS of Global Warming…so it would slow the destructive warming….not end it…and CERTAINLY THERE WILL BE NO NEW ICE AGE/ GLACIATION.

    • R. Kooi

      Actually the majority of the Earth’s population are already sweltering under Global Warming…..they would mind a bit if your froze your ass off in order to gain relief and better crop growing temps.

    • R. Kooi

      ….but the vast majority of the world’s population is already dealing with GLOBAL WARMING !
      CLIMATE CHANGES….so THEY cannot sit back and enjoy pontificating and assuming !
      ….they are fighting to save their economies and their civilizations.

      NO thinking by Thinkingman2025!

      And my point IS Tens of thousands of Class Rooms at Major Universities around the world
      over a Quarter Million researchers / Scientists have studied,
      ALL of the foundational Research that constitute the Empirical Base for the mountains of evidence Supporting Global Warming and its hundreds of threatening Climate Changes … dating all the way back to 1799 !
      Could it be that a know-nothing like you COULD BE WRONG ? ? ? ?
      …..paid to muddy the waters of public opinion So That the Billionaires controlling DESTRUCTIVE Killer COAL and BIG OIL can continue to SUCK IN HUGE QUANTITIES OF THE EARTH’S wealth…..
      6.5% of the Earth’s ENTIRE GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT
      to continue
      YOU, quite frankly, DISGUST ME !
      A TRUE GUTLESSNESS one seldom sees out side of sites like this one!
      ASSIGNING the vast majority of Earth’s Population to Die &/or Sicken while those FILTHY RICH SUPER WEALTHY/SUPER POWERFUL.
      ..can buy a better grade of AIR CONDITIONERS,
      BUILD A HIGHER WALL around Mar-a-Lago,
      move to a mountain Chalet
      farther from the misery THEY CREATE….YOU CREATE !

  • Joel Gombiner

    Hi Cody,

    It’s not just high CO2 that will cause the present interglacial to last longer than usual. Orbital eccentricity is also low, meaning that precession has a small effect on insolation.

    From the abstract:
    “The combination of minimal reduction in northern summer insolation over
    the next few orbital cycles, owing to low eccentricity, and high
    atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations implies that the next glacial
    inception is many tens of millennia in the future.”

  • Robert G Quayle

    Below is a decade old item from EOS that touches upon this potentially highly controversial topic:

    Preventing Another Ice Age, Eos, Vol. 87, No. 48, 28 November 2006, JOSEPH STERNBERG, Emeritus, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey
    DOI: 10.1029/2006EO480006
    Abstract …
    Current concern is focused on the consequences of global warming as the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide (CO2) increases. But adding CO2 to the atmosphere has some potential benefits. As considered in this paper, published research supports the view that a moderate increase in the atmospheric CO2 level could prevent the initiation of another ice age. The amount of C02 resulting from the use of the world’s fossil fuel reserves should be sufficient to provide this protection for thousands of years.