Any paleoclimatic record requires age estimates, and many techniques are used to obtain them. Annual layers in trees, in sediments of some lakes and shallow marine basins, in corals, and in some ice cores allow high-resolution dating for tens of thousands of years, or longer in exceptional cases. Various radiometric techniques are also used. Dates for the last 50,000 years are most commonly obtained by using radiocarbon (14C). Changes in production of radiocarbon by cosmic rays have occurred over time, but their effects are now calibrated by using annual-layer counts or other radiometric techniques, such as the use of radioactive intermediates generated during the decay of uranium and thorium and also through the potassium-argon system. Other techniques rely on measurement of accumulated damage to mineral grains, rocks, or chemicals; this permits dating on the basis of cosmogenic exposure ages, thermoluminescence, obsidian hydration, fission tracks, amino-acid racemization, and so on. Numerous techniques allow correlation of samples and assignment of ages from well-dated to initially less well-dated records. Such techniques include the identification of chemically “fingerprinted” fallout from particular volcanic eruptions, of changes in the composition of atmospheric gases trapped in ice cores, and of changes in cosmogenic isotope production or rock magnetization linked to changes in the earth’s magnetic field.


Sedimentary records reveal numerous large, widespread abrupt climate changes over the last 100,000 years and beyond. The best known of them is the Younger Dryas cold interval. The Younger Dryas was a nearly global event that began about 12,800 years ago when there was an interruption in the gradual warming trend that followed the last ice age. The Younger Dryas event ended abruptly about 11,600 years ago (Figures 2.1 and 2.2). Because the Younger Dryas can be tracked quite clearly in geologic records and has received extensive study, a rather detailed summary of the evidence is given here, followed by briefer reviews of other abrupt climate changes. We then target Holocene1 abrupt climate events as examples of substantial changes that have taken place when physical conditions on the earth were more similar to today. Understanding the causes of both types of abrupt


The Holocene is the most recent 11,000 years since the last major glacial epoch or “ice age.”

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