Introducing the Gizmag Store

Mini ice age could hit in a matter of months, not years


December 1, 2009

New research indicates a mini ice age can be brought on in a matter or months (Image: NASA...

New research indicates a mini ice age can be brought on in a matter or months (Image: NASA)

Those who scoffed at the swiftness with which the world was plunged into an ice age in the film The Day After Tomorrow may need to rethink their disbelief with new research showing that such a scenario may not be so far from the truth. A new study reveals that switching off the North Atlantic circulation can force the Northern hemisphere into a mini ‘ice age’ in a matter of months rather than the tens of years indicated by previous research.

Around 12,800 years ago the northern hemisphere was hit by a mini ice-age, known by scientists as the Younger Dryas, and nicknamed the “Big Freeze”, which lasted around 1300 years. Geological evidence shows that the Big Freeze was brought about by a sudden influx of freshwater, when the glacial Lake Agassiz in North America burst its banks and poured into the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. This vast pulse, a greater volume than all of North America’s Great Lakes combined, diluted the North Atlantic conveyor belt and brought it to a halt.

Without the warming influence of this ocean circulation temperatures across the Northern hemisphere plummeted, ice sheets grew and human civilization fell apart. Previous evidence from Greenland ice cores has indicated that this sudden change in climate occurred over the space of a decade or so. Now new data shows that the change was amazingly abrupt, taking place over the course of a few months, or a year or two at most.

Using a mud core taken from an ancient lake, Lough Monreach, in Ireland, the researchers have created the highest resolution record of the Big Freeze event to date. Using a scalpel layers were sliced from the core, just 0.5mm thick, representing a time period of one to three months.

Carbon isotopes in each slice reveal how productive the lake was, while oxygen isotopes give a picture of temperature and rainfall. At the start of the Big Freeze their new record shows that temperatures plummeted and lake productivity stopped over the course of just a few years.

Meanwhile, their isotope record from the end of the Big Freeze shows that it took around two centuries for the lake and climate to recover, rather than the abrupt decade or so that ice cores indicate. “This makes sense because it would take time for the ocean and atmospheric circulation to turn on again,” says researcher William Patterson, from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.

Looking ahead to the future Patterson says there is no reason why a “Big Freeze” shouldn’t happen again. “If the Greenland ice sheet melted suddenly it would be catastrophic,” he says.

The study was carried out by the European Science Foundation EUROCORES program ‘Histories from the North – environments, movements, narratives’, which was comprised of 38 individual research teams from Europe, Russia, Canada and the USA.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick

so its an 'ice-age' created by global warming?

bio-power jeff
1st December, 2009 @ 05:18 am PST

So I guess nature would be self correcting. The global warming melts the Greenland ice sheet which stops the Gulf stream which freezes the northern hemisphere. So then the sudden ice age kills billions of humans who created this mess in the first place.

But I wonder what happens to the southern hemisphere during all this? Should I move to Brazil?

1st December, 2009 @ 05:07 pm PST

You are right Eletruk! 12,800 years ago them stupid humans with there coal fired power stations, and running around in their gas guzzling cars. lucky we have people like Al Gore now to show us the error of our ways, they could of done with someone like him 12,800 years ago.

2nd December, 2009 @ 04:04 am PST

Yes, Jum, you have clearly demonstrated your aptitude for sarcasm and wit. And you have somehow stumbled upon the glorious revelation that Earth's localized temperature systems and CO_2 concentrations exhibit a naturally sinusoidal rhythm--but alas your brilliant discovery is nothing new to the scientific community as the data taken by hundreds of researchers already depicts that.

But before you begin claiming that the unnaturally high levels of CO_2 and other greenhouse gasses that our technologies are known to produce in vast quantities are of little consequence, and expounding your myopic "views" in such an antagonistic manner, you might meditate on the definition of the word 'catalyst'.

2nd December, 2009 @ 11:56 am PST

It's a feedback system: if you inject new inputs into the system it can oscillate - especially if you don't know what you're doing. In either case, the results are usually not good or predictable.

2nd December, 2009 @ 05:16 pm PST

O.K. I have a question? Who decided that the amount of C0² that is now present is too much? It’s been MUCH higher in earths past and there is this little fact that C0² does not cause global warming but only goes up when the earth gets warm! Why doesn’t anybody every bring this up? C0² fallows the earths temperature not proceed it, AND even if it did cause any kind of temperature differential how about we just learn to adapt the way our ancestors did? I will not get put into a 3rd world life stile because somebody thinks my car had even the slightest effect on our earth!

3rd December, 2009 @ 03:09 pm PST


Firstly it would only be a local ice age - affecting the countries now warmed by ocean circulation - GB, etc. Other areas (tropics particularly) would be HEATED by the reduction in outflow of heat, via ocean circulation. This would be on top of the anthropometric global warming.

Secondly, & fortunately, there do not appear to be any lakes which could collapse at the current time - melting of the ice caps would be gradual and might slow the ocean circulation, but unlikely to stop it.

MrHuck - I hope you don't have any kids. If you do, you can tell them to start 'adapting' by remembering what beaches look like, and by making do without the food produced on the most productive soils - the river flats, which will go under.

Yes, CO2 has been higher in the past - but last time it was as high as this, sea levels were 25 to 40 metres higher than now.

3rd December, 2009 @ 09:30 pm PST

I would like to point out a couple of things:

Yes, we live in a feedbacked system which tends to stability. This means two things: on an external input in one direction the system REACTS in an opposite way so as to go back to the previous state and to reduce the oscillation created; But the new stable point might not be exactly the previous one.

And yes, some million years ago there was a lot more CO2 in the atmosphere, but average temperature on the planet was a lot higher, and possibly there were not the same oceanic circulations simply because the continents configuration was so different. And besides this, there were plants all over that were fixing all that CO2, with the aid of high temperatures converting CO2 in organic matter and releasing O2. When the CO2 was lowered and O2 was increased there was a certain point in which an equilibrium was broken and there was an ice age. After this plants were not the same any more and new species appeared (our modern plants, grass, flowers, and so on).

So my conclusion is that ancient plants pumped CO2 underground (in form of coal, oil, etc.) for million years, and as we now are pumping it up again "abruptly" (in just three or four hundred years) it's quite possible that we get a temperature rise, and the global system will react more or less abruptly to reduce the oscillation.

4th December, 2009 @ 08:22 am PST

Wow Dalek, you are one incredibly sophisticated thinker, not to mention having your own unique brand of incredibly scathing wit. I bet your friends are intimidated as all hell by that mind of yours, fearing to venture even the most harmless of opinions in your presence. ...Can you say smarmy twerp? You passes the worst kind of gasses.

Climate change, like all things on this planet, is inevitable, with or without the interference of human enterprise. Sure, we may exacerbate these changes to a minor extent, but it is my humble estimation this is merely the cause du jour on which sheeple are hanging their fears, most likely wrought by neocons and far left pinheads who are trying to level the playing field by bringing down the most productive nations through guilt, coercion and outright lies. Thanks to these anti-humans industrialized nations will be held as pariahs while third world cesspools will be lauded as representing humanity's finest endeavors.

7th December, 2009 @ 07:49 pm PST

Jum, Dalek, mrhucfinn and Kavid, you are all just an antagonistic waste of space.

Now listen to me, here's the way it really is.......

8th December, 2009 @ 12:09 am PST

Eletruk said, "So I guess nature would be self correcting. The global warming melts the Greenland ice sheet which stops the Gulf stream which freezes the northern hemisphere. So then the sudden ice age kills billions of humans who created this mess in the first place."

Why don't you also stop guessing about the evidence for global warming you gullible guessing idiot?

"But I wonder what happens to the southern hemisphere during all this? Should I move to Brazil?"

why ask for an opinion if all you want to hear is: "Forget about God just feel what you want."?

Facebook User
14th December, 2009 @ 03:31 am PST

If everyone hasn't noticed. We no longer have "Global Warming". The powers that be now refer to it as "Climate Change", with that it can go either way and they are right.

Facebook User
28th December, 2009 @ 11:20 am PST

The 'save the planet' movement detracts from what is ultimately important ->human civilization. Forget carbon-trading, it's as simple as doing what's necessary to ensure that the human race continues indefinitely. You can get a non-tree-lover on board if you use the argument that we are wasting free energy from the sun/wind, while we are burning energy that we could conserve and save instead of a 'do it for the salamanders' approach.

A rapid mini-ice age would be disastrous for mankind period. Not that we wouldn't survive: the optimist might say we need a specific challenge to face in order to move forward together. However, the lake in Ireland does not answer what happened to the climate elsewhere. How would precipitation in the gulf of mexico fare if there is no circulation of the water needed to carry it inland?

29th December, 2009 @ 02:12 pm PST

It is not global warming or climate but it is global government. Nothing man does will really change the climate unless we set off all our nuclear weapons, but we sure as hell can change our governments.

Facebook User
3rd January, 2010 @ 08:03 pm PST

What is Nature's way of fixing carbon? Growing Green things! If everybody planted a tree or four (Irish joke!) surely that would help? Where to plant them? Next to power stations. By the way, all that smoke you see comming out of the cooling towers is of course steam. They are cooling the water, which was heated up to make steam, to turn the turbines. Why don't they re-circulate the hot water and reheat it, instead of wasting it up the chimney. I think there is something here I don't undersdand. Can someone explain to me how a power station works? It sounds very in-efficient to me

5th January, 2010 @ 09:04 am PST

what the hell..

Billy 24
8th January, 2010 @ 07:31 pm PST

I would like to share my interest as one of the principals of Royal Wind, we have designed an Ocean Temperature Regulatory System using our revolutionary turbines to power cold water pumps. Our system is designed to pump large amounts of cold water to the surface of the ocean to create cold water thermoclines. We believe that widespread use of our system worldwide would result in a much desired global temperature regulation and reduction. The health of our oceans and the increased carbon sequestration are linked to global sustainability. We feel that without intervention the oceans are in danger of collapse. The health of our oceans is crucial to the maintenance of oxygen levels in the atmosphere. If the oceans die, we will struggle to survive. It's all connected: ocean health, carbon sequestration, and global temperatures. Here's the plan:

To install our ocean-current powered cold water pumps in strategic locations worldwide, creating cold water thermoclines, increasing the sequestration of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. Our system will also be used to build the polar icecap back to a more acceptable year-round base level which will also ensure the continued function of the thermohaline and of the North Atlantic drift. Our system will also be used to create cold water barriers to hurricanes. We can solve the Earth's problems with the right effort. We must if we plan to continue living on this Earth.

19th January, 2010 @ 04:08 pm PST

We need facts and the best way to get them are:

1. Read some environmental magazines and brochures like ones IPCC read to get their 'facts' about glacier's melting in the Himalayas.

2. Watch Al Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth' at least 3 times or until you believe everything he says.

3. Take temperature readings only from weather stations that will support whatever conclusion we want to reach.

4th February, 2010 @ 04:13 pm PST

Windykites1 - I hear this all the time - people don't understand the way power stations work. Remember, they have 2 sets of chimneys - the large diameter towers are cooling towers, and they cool the water for the heat exchanger, so that is steam. The other small diameter chimney is the coal or gas output - this is almost invisible to the naked eye, so doesn't feature in TV coverage - doesn't look very impressive.

Simplified, in a conventional power station (coal, gas or nuclear), the actual power is generated by the following process - inject liquid -> heated in boiler -> creates high pressure steam -> turbine is turned, steam becomes low pressure -> low pressure steam turned back to liquid -> repeat process.

The liquid to steam transition is where the power to turn the turbines comes from, so you need to cool the steam enough for it to become liquid again, so you can heat it hence adding energy again. The water used in the boiler and turbines is actually a closed system so it has to be put through a heat exchanger and it is the cooling water in the heat exchanger which is pumped to the top of the cooling tower, and it cools as it falls. Some obviously escapes as steam.

This is the basic premise of most power stations - and you will notice that newer power stations have much smaller cooling towers and much smaller amounts of steam escaping, and there are other improvements / changes being made all the time.

8th February, 2010 @ 08:17 pm PST

Rod, why is the water cooled after going through the turbines? Why is it not just reheated? I don't understand the need for cooling towers, or heat exchangers. Surely this is an ineffficient system? The 'waste' heat just goes up into the atmosphere in the steam. I agree with your comment about the actual gas output chimney. However, does this not show that there is a deliberate intention to mislead the public? The actual amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 0.1%(correct me if I'm wrong) I am very sceptical that this tiny percentage can be causing so called Global Warming (sorry,Climate Change)

9th February, 2010 @ 11:16 am PST

Windykites1, the water coming out of the turbine is still steam, but at a very low pressure - heating it up doesn't make it high pressure, it just makes it hotter. What you have to do is cool it down so that it changes back to a liquid, so when it is heated it changes state to a high pressure steam again. I can't remember the details of my high school chemistry, but phase changes require and release a lot of energy (depending on which way you are going).

When I say it is cooled down, it is only cooled just enough for the phase transition to occur, so if it was pure water it would only be cooled to say 95 deg C. I believe that the liquid / steam mixture is a special mix with special boiling points, anti-corrosion compounds etc to minimize maintenance requirements to the power station.

Disclaimer - don't quote me on the details, it has been 12 years since I toured a coal fired power station while at uni (we even got to walk through a boiler that was down for maintenance), so the details aren't clear, but the general theory is correct.

See for a brief description and diagram.

As for misleading the public, I think most of the problem is the lack of understanding of the people who take the photos and print them - the thinking probably goes like 'power stations produce pollution, there are clouds of "smoke" coming from them, so that must be the pollution'

I haven't done a heap of reading of Climate Warming / Change documents, but what I have read seems to indicate that the amount of CO2 and other "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere has increased more int he last 100 years than in the preceding centuries, and that is from burning fossil fuels. What that is actually going to do to the atmosphere / sea water levels / air quality etc in the medium to long term still seems to be open to interpretation.

Personally, the best reason I have for reducing the burning of fossil fuels is how useful the oil (and coal to a lesser extent) is to make really useful plastics, and instead we just burn it to watch TV and save ourselves from walking. (Ok, there are more useful things we use electricity for, but I think my point is still valid)

9th February, 2010 @ 03:30 pm PST

Entropy - the transfer of energy from a "zone" of high concentration, to a "zone" of low concentration....

Just like hydroelectric power - dammed water high in a mountain, gets piped downhill to a turbine at the bottom of the mountain, and generates power.

That is in a pretend sense, IF there was no rain and no evaporation, then all the water would eventually be at the same level and thus no power could be generated.

This is what is happening to the universe.

And coal - is simply a chunk of concentrated energy - having a chemical reaction in a fire, and releasing that through intermediate stages, into the low energy environment.

Mr Stiffy
10th February, 2010 @ 06:07 pm PST

Rod, thanks for the patient educationals fon windykite. However it might make some sense to capture heat via a sterling engine so the output into the local water is not so hot as to cook the fish environment? This is not highly efficient for the closed loop accountancy we normally employ. The heat pollution is externalized and the power company is happy with that. The question to answer is how many Kwhatts are tossed away in the cooling tower as relied on now?

Your other point has been my main objection for years. Someday a kid is going to deliver this question in an incredulous tone to his parent: "You mean back then you burned the stuff? You burned black gold for callories, for transportation? What a waste!!!!" An poor dad will have to explain the incredibly shortsighted greed of commerce.

14th February, 2010 @ 06:27 pm PST

Rod, thanks for your info regarding low pressure steam. I will look at the site you mentioned. Can you tell me why they don't pass the steam through a heat exchanger, instead of wasting the heat to the atmosphere? With regard to wasting coal and oil by burning them, lets remember that oil is refined in a fractionating tower to separate the different constituents. Plastics are derived from the heavier parts (tars etc. ) the lighter parts become fuel oil, deisel, and gasoline.

15th February, 2010 @ 08:11 am PST

I just looked at the power station website, and it seems that the problem is, getting the low pressure steam back into the circuit of very high pressure steam. Surely though, the returning cold water is under the same pressure system. Sorry if I'm being a bit thick about this. More explanation required. Thanks

15th February, 2010 @ 08:22 am PST

The low pressure steam does go through a heat exchanger (or condenser) so the water in the cooling towers is not the same liquid that is heated by the boiler. I don't know the exact details, but I believe there is a reservoir of boiler liquid and a series of pumps etc to regulate the flow to the boiler, which then regulates the power produced at the turbine (Along with the feed of pulverised coal, the temperature of the furnace etc. etc)

As for wasting heat, I believe it is a case of diminishing returns, ie economics. These power stations that I am talking about were built decades ago, and the amount of power generated from the waste heat is a lot lower than from the coal burning, and it still required construction, maintenance etc for any system to harness the waste heat. I'm in Australia, so due to the hotter climate there is less use for heat, especially in the sometimes remote locations where the power stations are. There was no (or very little) thought about the waste heat - just build or use a nearby lake, pump that through your condenser and cooling towers, and forget about it. That is changing and can be seen by the reduction in sizes and numbers of cooling towers, reduction in secondary water used etc.

As for stirling engines, it would simply be an economic question - can you build, install and maintain the engines for less than the amount of power you get out of them? Again, 50 years ago I would say not, but given the increase in electricity price, it may be feasible now.

True, the lighter parts become fuel oil etc, I just hope there isn't a nifty new use for these lighter parts discovered then we find out that we don't have much left. Although I have just read Earth: The Sequel, which discusses a lot of types of emerging energy technologies, and there are some really cool things happening with biological processes to create fuel (mostly ethonal) from bio-waste. It's a really good read too, as it gives hope that there is a future - a nice change from the doom and gloom!

19th February, 2010 @ 07:35 pm PST
Post a Comment

Login with your gizmag account:

Or Login with Facebook:

Related Articles

Just enter your friends and your email address into the form below

For multiple addresses, separate each with a comma

Privacy is safe with us because we have a strict privacy policy.

Looking for something? Search our 26,554 articles