Today’s date, about 800,000 years ago, sees a shift in the nature of glacial cycles. But let’s back up a bit. Earth’s climate took a turn toward cool in the transition from Eocene to Oligocene, 35 million years ago (although with some warming in the Miocene). It was probably back then that much of Antarctica started being covered by ice. The establishment of open water all the way around Antarctica may have helped isolate and freeze the continent. And declining carbon dioxide levels, partly a result of weathering of rocks in the Himalayas, probably also made a difference. But it was back at the beginning of the Pleistocene, now dated to 2.5 million years ago, that the current Ice Age truly began, with glaciers covering large parts of northern North America and northern Europe.
Current Ice Age? Glaciers covering large parts of northern North America and northern Europe? This isn’t what the climate has been like for the past 10,0000 years. Within the current long Ice Age there have been long glacial periods and shorter interglacials, and we’re currently in an interglacial. Our own activities may have done something to prolong the interglacial, and stave off the return of the ice; more on this another day.
Three astronomical cycles govern the rhythm of glacial and interglacial. There’s a 100,000 year cycle as Earth’s orbit changes from somewhat more elliptical to somewhat more circular. There’s a 40,000 year cycle as Earth’s axis shifts from slightly more tilted (24.5 degrees off vertical) to slightly less (22.1 degrees). It’s currently tilted at 23.5 degrees. And there’s a 21,000 year cycle generated as the Earth precesses – wobbles like a top. Right now the North Pole is pointed at Polaris, and the Sun very recently started rising in the constellation Aquarius at the Spring equinox: hence the Age of Aquarius.
Between 2.5 million and 800,000 years ago, the glacial/interglacial alternation was dominated by the 40,000 year cycle. But beginning about 800,000 years, there has been a gear shift: the 100,000 year cycle has been dominant and swings in climate have been more extreme. (And in Africa the 21,000 year cycle is more important for alternations between rainy and dry. Africa is in a dry state now.)
One of the startling findings to come out of the last few decades of work on ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica is that not only have there have been huge long-term changes in climate, but there have also been extreme short term shifts, probably connected with changes in ocean currents. There have been a number of occasions over the last hundreds of thousands of years during which average temperatures shifted by 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit (5-10 degrees Celsius) for a millennium, or even for a century or less! (During the last 10,000 years, however, the climate has been unusually stable.)
This is bound to have had strong effects on human beings. Two anthropologists, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, who work on mathematical models of cultural evolution, have a general theory of how this pattern of oscillations might have affected human evolution. They argue that human adaptation takes place on multiple time scales. On very long time scales, human beings adapt to changes in the environment genetically. On very short time scale, human beings adapt to change through individual learning. But when change happens on intermediate time scales, adaptation takes place through social learning. With changes on intermediate time scales, your ancestors may not have enough time to adapt genetically to the current climate, but things may be stable for long enough that your culture and the wisdom of the elders have a lot to teach you about how to cope. So one of the really distinctive features of human beings – we are, more than any other creature, a cultural animal – may have been shaped by the nature of climate change especially over the last 800,000 years.