Loss of Ice Sheet Caused an Increase in Volcanic Activity: What Caused the End of the Ice Age

First Posted: Feb 02, 2016 10:28 AM EST

What caused the end of the last ice age? It was probably due to a combination of erosion and a massive increase in volcanic activity. The findings may reveal a bit more about our current climate, and what we may expect in the future.

Over the past million years, Earth has gone back and forth between ice ages and interglacial periods, with each period lasting for about 100,000 years. During interglacial periods, volcanic activity is much higher, since the lack of pressure provided by the ice caps means that volcanoes are freer to erupt.

"It's been established that melting ice caps and volcanic activity are linked-but what we've found is that erosion also plays a key role in the cycle," said Pietro Sternai, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Previous attempts to model the huge increase in atmospheric CO2 at the end of the last ice age failed to account for the role of erosion, meaning that CO2 levels may have been seriously underestimated."

Using numerical simulations, researchers found that erosion is just as important as melting ice in driving the increase is magma production and subsequent volcanic activity. And while researchers caution about drawing conclusions between current melting, they do say that the same mechanism could work at shorter timescales.

"There are several factors that contribute to climate warming and cooling trends, and many of them are related to the Earth's orbital parameters," said Sternai. "But we know that much faster warming that cooling can't be caused solely by changes in the Earth's orbit-it must be, at least to some extent, related to something within the Earth system itself. Erosion, by contributing to unload the Earth's surface and enhance volcanic CO2 emissions, may be the missing factor required to explain such persistent climate asymmetry."

The findings are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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