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September 30 2012

We're lucky to be enjoying a brief, balmy interglacial. But look out when it stops...


We're enjoying a relatively long and stable period of pleasant weather at the moment. And by that, I don't mean the past few years or decades. I mean the past 12,000 years or so. For around 2.6m years, the Earth has experienced a fluctuating climate, swinging between icy glaciations and warm interglacials. It's an uneven division, with glaciations lasting around 100,000 years, and interglacials just 10,000 to 15,000. So just imagine the impact on plants and animals of these switches from long, wintry glaciations to brief, summery interglacials. The differences in climate are extreme. At the peak of the last ice age, just 20,000 years ago, vast ice sheets descended over the northern parts of Europe and North America. For any animals adapted to a temperate climate, glaciations posed something of a challenge. Hibernation and woolly jumpers would not be enough to ride out 100,000 years of winter. Those warm-loving animals (and humans) cleared out of the north and sought refuge in the south.

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