JUST months – that’s how long it took for Europe to be engulfed by an ice age. The scenario, which comes straight out of Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, was revealed by the most precise record of the climate from palaeohistory ever generated.
Around 12,800 years ago the northern hemisphere was hit by the Younger Dryas mini ice age, or “Big Freeze”. It was triggered by the slowdown of the Gulf Stream, led to the decline of the Clovis culture in North America, and lasted around 1300 years.
Until now, it was thought that the mini ice age took a decade or so to take hold, on the evidence provided by Greenland ice cores. Not so, say William Patterson of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, and his colleagues.
The group studied a mud core from an ancient lake, Lough Monreagh, in western Ireland. Using a scalpel they sliced off layers 0.5 to 1 millimetre thick, each representing up to three months of time. No other measurements from the period have approached this level of detail.
Carbon isotopes in each slice revealed how productive the lake was and oxygen isotopes gave a picture of temperature and rainfall. They show that at the start of the Big Freeze, temperatures plummeted and lake productivity stopped within months, or a year at most. “It would be like taking Ireland today and moving it up to Svalbard” in the Arctic, says Patterson, who presented the findings at the BOREAS conference in Rovaniemi, Finland, on 31 October.
“This is significantly shorter than what has been suggested before, but it is plausible,” says Derek Vance of the University of Bristol, UK. Hans Renssen, a climate researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, says recent findings from Greenland ice cores indicate the Younger Dryas event may have happened in one to three years. Patterson’s results confirm this was a very sudden change, he says.