The Pleistocene Ice Age

Eileen Herrstrom
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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This activity takes place in a laboratory setting and requires ~1.5-2 hours to complete. Students work with data about glacial materials, Milankovitch cycles, and stable isotopes from ice cores and deep-sea sediments.

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Undergraduate class on introductory physical geology or quantitative reasoning for non-majors

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Must have general knowledge about glaciers, glacial sediments, and Pleistocene history and be able to create, format, and duplicate Excel charts

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a laboratory activity that follows lectures on glaciers and ice ages and is the thirteenth laboratory exercise of the course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Describe the characteristics of glacial sediments, identify sediments commonly associated with glaciers, outline the Pleistocene history of Illinois, and explain its effects on the landscape

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Construct a chart with data about solar radiation changes on Earth through time, compare fluctuations in the extent of glaciers with changes in the Earth's orbit, and summarize the data related to the Milankovitch hypothesis about the ice age

Other skills goals for this activity

Use temperature-dependent hydrogen isotope ratios in ice cores to identify glacial and interglacial cycles, verify the glacial record using oxygen isotope ratios from deep-sea sediments, and synthesize information from all three parts of this exercise to assess the Milankovitch hypothesis

Description of the activity/assignment

What is commonly referred to as the "Ice Age," a time when one-quarter of Earth's land surface was buried by ice, occurred during the Pleistocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period. Pleistocene glaciers profoundly affected landscapes in many parts of the world, including the central United States.

Student materials for this exercise include a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with data on insolation, hydrogen stable isotopes from glacial ice, and oxygen stable isotopes from deep-sea sediments; an MS Word file student instructions and questions; and an image file with glacial samples. The exercise is divided into three parts.

Part I introduces various types of glacial sediment, maps of moraines, and a general Pleistocene history of Illinois.

In Part II, students work with insolation data at the top of the atmosphere at 65°N, creating a chart and comparing it with the traditional glacial episodes.

Part III involves stable isotope records of δD from the Vostok ice core in Antarctica and δ18O from deep-sea sediment cores. Students graph both records, compare one to the other, and then compare them to the insolation curve from Part II.

Determining whether students have met the goals

In both the traditional face-to-face and online versions of the course, this activity is assessed based on the answers to the questions. It is also possible to have students submit their completed spreadsheets, although this option works best in a small class.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Guyot, A., Biographical Memoir of Louis Agassiz, 1807-1873: read before the National Academy, April 1878. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019

Tofaif, S., V.M. Vandyk, D.P. Le Heron, and J. Melvin, 2019, Glaciers, flows, and fans: Origins of a Neoproterozoic diamictite in the Saratoga Hills, Death Valley, California: Sedimentary Geology, v. 385, pp. 79-95. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019

Insolation data:

Berger, A, Loutre, M-F, 1999, Parameters of the Earths orbit for the last 5 Million years in 1 kyr resolution: PANGAEA. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019
Supplement to: Berger, A., and M-F Loutre, 1991, Insolation values for the climate of the last 10 million of years: Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 10, pp. 297-317. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019

Oxygen isotope data:

Lisiecki, L.E., and M.E. Raymo, 2005, A Pliocene-Pleistocene stack of 57 globally distributed benthic d18O records: Paleoceanography, v. 20, p. 1003. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019
Supplement to: Lisiecki, L.E., and M.E. Raymo, 2005 (Appendix 1) Global Plio-Pleistocene stack of benthic oxygen isotope records. PANGAEA. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019

Hydrogen isotope data:

Jouzel, J., C. Lorius, J.R. Petit, C. Genthon, N.I. Barkov, V.M. Kotlyakov, and V.M. Petrov, 1987, Vostok ice core: a continuous isotope temperature record over the last climatic cycle (160,000 years): Nature, v. 329, pp. 403-8.

Jouzel, J., N.I. Barkov, J.M. Barnola, M. Bender, J. Chappellaz, C. Genthon, V.M. Kotlyakov, V. Lipenkov, C. Lorius, J.R. Petit, D. Raynaud, G. Raisbeck, C. Ritz, T. Sowers, M. Stievenard, F. Yiou, and P. Yiou, 1993, Extending the Vostok ice-core record of palaeoclimate to the penultimate glacial period: Nature, v. 364, pp. 407-12.

Jouzel, J., C. Waelbroeck, B. Malaize, M. Bender, J.R. Petit, M. Stievenard, N.I. Barkov, J.M. Barnola, T. King, V.M. Kotlyakov, V. Lipenkov, C. Lorius, D. Raynaud, C. Ritz, and T. Sowers, 1996, Climatic interpretation of the recently extended Vostok ice records: Climate Dynamics, v. 12, pp. 513-521.

Petit, J.R., J. Jouzel, D. Raynaud, N.I. Barkov, J.-M. Barnola, I. Basile, M. Bender, J. Chappellaz, M. Davis, G. Delayque, M. Delmotte, V.M. Kotlyakov, M. Legrand, V.Y. Lipenkov, C. Lorius, L. Pepin, C. Ritz, E. Saltzman, and M. Stievenard, 1999, Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica: Nature, v. 399, pp. 429-436.

Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019