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In the middle of the nineteenth century, Louis Agassiz, one of the first scientists to study glaciers, immigrated to the United States from Switzerland and became a professor at Harvard University, where he continued his studies in geology and other sciences. For his research, Agassiz visited many places in the northern parts of Europe and North America, from the mountains of Scandinavia and New England to the rolling hills of the American Midwest. In all these diverse regions, Agassiz saw signs of glacial erosion and sedimentation. In flat plains country, he saw moraines (accumulations of earth and loose rock that form at the edges of glaciers) that reminded him of the terminal moraines found at the end of valley glaciers in the Alps. The heterogeneous material of the drift (sand, clay, and rocks deposited there) convinced him of its glacial origin.
The areas covered by this material were so vast that the ice that deposited it must have been a continental glacier larger than Greenland or Antarctica. Eventually, Agassiz and others convinced geologists and the general public that a great continental glaciation had extended the polar ice caps far into regions that now enjoy temperate climates. For the first time, people began to talk about ice ages. It was also apparent that the glaciation occurred in the relatively recent past because the drift was soft, like freshly deposited sediment. We now know the age of the glaciation accurately from radiometric dating of the carbon-14 in logs buried in the drift. The drift of the last glaciation was deposited during one of the most recent epochs of geologic time, the Pleistocene, which lasted from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. Along the east coast of the United States, the southernmost advance of this ice is recorded by the enormous sand and drift deposits of the terminal moraines that form Long Island and Cape Cod.
It soon became clear that there were multiple glacial ages during the Pleistocene, with warmer interglacial intervals between them. As geologists mapped glacial deposits in the late nineteenth century, they became aware that there were several layers of drift, the lower ones corresponding to earlier ice ages. Between the older layers of glacial material were well-developed soils containing fossils of warm-climate plants. These soils were evidence that the glaciers retreated as the climate warmed. By the early part of the twentieth century, scientists believed that four distinct glaciations had affected North America and Europe during the Pleistocene epoch.
This idea was modified in the late twentieth century, when geologists and oceanographers examining oceanic sediment found fossil evidence of warming and cooling of the oceans. Ocean sediments presented a much more complete geologic record of the Pleistocene than continental glacial deposits did. The fossils buried in Pleistocene and earlier ocean sediments were of foraminifera-small, single-celled marine organisms that secrete shells of calcium carbonate, or calcite. These shells differ in their proportion of ordinary oxygen (oxygen-16) and the heavy oxygen isotope (oxygen-18). The ratio of oxygen-16 to oxygen-18 found in the calcite of a foraminifer's shell depends on the temperature of the water in which the organism lived. Different ratios in the shells preserved in various layers of sediment reveal the temperature changes in the oceans during the Pleistocene epoch.
Isotopic analysis of shells allowed geologists to measure another glacial effect. They could trace the growth and shrinkage of continental glaciers, even in parts of the ocean where there may have been no great change in temperature-around the equator, for example. The oxygen isotope ratio of the ocean changes as a great deal of water is withdrawn from it by evaporation and is precipitated as snow to form glacial ice. During glaciations, the lighter oxygen-16 has a greater tendency to evaporate from the ocean surface than the heavier oxygen-18 does. Thus, more of the heavy isotope is left behind in the ocean and absorbed by marine organisms. From this analysis of marine sediments, geologists have learned that there were many shorter, more regular cycles of glaciation and deglaciation than geologists had recognized from the glacial drift of the continents alone.