An interglacial period (or alternatively interglacial, interglaciation) is a geological interval of warmer global average temperature lasting thousands of years that separates consecutive glacial periods within an ice age. The current Holocene interglacial began at the end of the Pleistocene, about 11,700 years ago.
During the 2.5 million years of the Pleistocene, numerous glacials, or significant advances of continental ice sheets, in North America and Europe, occurred at intervals of approximately 40,000 to 100,000 years. The long glacial periods were separated by more temperate and shorter interglacials.
During interglacials, such as the present one, the climate warms and the tundra recedes polewards following the ice sheets. Forests return to areas that once supported tundra vegetation. Interglacials are identified on land or in shallow epicontinental seas by their paleontology. Floral and faunal remains of species pointing to temperate climate and indicating a specific age are used to identify particular interglacials. Commonly used are mammalian and molluscan species, pollen and plant macro-remains (seeds and fruits). However, many other fossil remains may be helpful: insects, ostracods, foraminifera, diatoms, etc. Recently, ice cores and ocean sediment cores provide more quantitative and accurately-dated evidence for temperatures and total ice volumes.
Interglacials and glacials coincide with cyclic changes in the Earth's orbit. Three orbital variations contribute to interglacials. The first is a change in the Earth's orbit around the sun, or eccentricity. The second is a shift in the tilt of the Earth's axis, or obliquity. The third is the wobbling motion of Earth's axis, or precession.
In the Southern Hemisphere, warmer summers occur when the lower-half of the Earth is tilted toward the sun and the planet is nearest the sun in its elliptical orbit. Cooler summers occur when the Earth is farthest from the sun during the Southern Hemisphere summer. Such effects are more pronounced when the eccentricity of the orbit is large. When the obliquity is large, seasonal changes are more extreme.
Interglacials are a useful tool for geological mapping and for anthropologists, as they can be used as a dating method for hominid fossils.
Brief periods of milder climate that occurred during the last glacial are called interstadials. Most, but not all, interstadials are shorter than interglacials. Interstadial climates may have been relatively warm, but not neces... ...read more