Additional info from Skeptical Science
According to ice cores from Antarctica, the past 400,000 years have been dominated by glacials, also known as ice ages, that last about 100,000 years. These glacials have been punctuated by interglacials, short warm periods which typically last 11,500 years. Figure 1 shows how temperatures in Antarctica changed over this period. Because our current interglacial (the Holocene) has already lasted approximately 12,000 years, it has led some to claim that a new ice age is imminent. Is this a valid claim?
Figure 1: Temperature change at Vostok, Antarctica. The timing of warmer interglacials is highlighted in green; our current interglacial, the Holocene, is the one on the far right of the graph. © John Cook.
To answer this question, it is necessary to understand what has caused the shifts between ice ages and interglacials during this period. The cycle appears to be a response to changes in the Earth’s orbit and tilt, which affect the amount of summer sunlight reaching the Northern Hemisphere. When this amount declines, the rate of summer melt declines and the ice sheets begin to grow. In turn, this increases the amount of sunlight reflected back into space, increasing (or amplifying) the cooling trend. Eventually a new ice age emerges and lasts for about 100,000 years.
So what are today’s conditions like? Changes in both the orbit and tilt of the Earth do indeed indicate that the Earth should be cooling. However, two reasons explain why an ice age is unlikely:
1. These two factors, orbit and tilt, are weak and are not acting within the same timescale; they are out of phase by about 10,000 years. This means that their combined effect would probably be too weak to trigger an ice age. You have to go back 430,000 years to find an interglacial with similar conditions, and this interglacial lasted about 30,000 years.
2. The warming effect from CO2 and other greenhouse gases is greater than the cooling effect expected from natural factors. Without human interference, the Earth’s orbit and tilt, a slight decline in solar output since the 1950s, and volcanic activity would all have led to global cooling. Yet global temperatures are definitely on the rise.
It can therefore be concluded that with CO2 concentrations set to continue to rise, a return to ice age conditions seems very unlikely. Instead, global temperatures are increasing.
Adapted from © John Cook and Skeptical Science