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4 - The Oligocene to the Quaternary: climate and biology

Summary

We are currently in the middle of an ice age! This ice age is known as the Quaternary ice age, and it began roughly 2 million years ago (mya) (I say ‘roughly’ because how much ice do you need on the planet to say that it is an ice age?). We might not think we are in an ice age and this is because we are in a warm part, called an interglacial. As we shall see, there have been a number of glacials and interglacials in our Quaternary ice age. However, this ice age did not just start by itself but arose out of a number of factors that became relevant earlier, in the Oligocene (34–23 mya) and Miocene (23–5.3 mya) epochs, well before the beginning of our ice age and the Pliocene and Pleistocene glaciations (Zachos et al., 2001). These glaciations actually had their beginnings some 5.3 mya. To understand how our Quaternary ice age came about we will need to briefly re-cap part of the previous chapter and note some other material to provide a more biological perspective while leaving out the extinction events.

The Oligocene (33.9–23.03 mya)

Between 35 and 15 mya the Earth's temperature was roughly 3–4°C warmer than today and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were twice as high. However, climate forcing factors were coming into play that were to cool the planet. Carbon dioxide levels were falling and, as noted in the previous chapter, this fall could only have been furthered by the new C4 plants (even though their period of major expansion was not to take place until 8 mya: see below).

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