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The Quaternary period is the youngest of three periods of the Cenozoic era in the geologic time scale of the ICS. It follows after the Neogene period, spanning 2.588 +/- 0.005 million years ago to the present. The Quaternary includes two geologic epochs: the Pleistocene and the Holocene epochs.


Research history

The term Quaternary ("fourth") was proposed by Giovanni Arduino in 1759 for alluvial deposits in the Po rivermarker valley in northern Italymarker. It was introduced by Jules Desnoyers in 1829 for sediments of Francemarker's Seinemarker Basin that seemed clearly to be younger than Tertiary Period rocks. The Quaternary Period follows the Tertiary Period and extends to the present. The Quaternary covers the time span of glaciations classified as the Pleistocene, and includes the present interglacial period, the Holocene. This places the start of the Quaternary at the onset of Northern Hemispheremarker glaciation approximately 2.6 million years ago and includes portions of what has sometimes been classified as the upper Pliocene. This definition is favoured by the vast majority of Quaternary scientists.

Quaternary stratigraphers usually worked with regional subdivisions. From the 1960s, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) tries to make a single geologic time scale based on GSSP's, which can be used internationally. The Quaternary subdivisions were defined based on biostratigraphy instead of paleoclimate. This led to the problem that the proposed base of the Pleistocene was at 1.805 Ma, long after the start of the major glaciations of the northern hemisphere. The ICS then proposed to abolish use of the name Quaternary altogether, which appeared unacceptable to the International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA). In 2009, it was decided to make the Quaternary the youngest period of the Cenozoic era with its base at 2.588 Ma and including the Gelasian age, which was formerly considered part of the Neogene period and Pliocene epoch.

The Earth during the Quaternary

The 2.6 million years of the Quaternary represents the time during which recognizable humans existed. Over this short a time period, the total amount of continental drift was less than 100 km, which is largely irrelevant to paleontology. Nonetheless, the geological record is preserved in greater detail than that for earlier periods, and is most relatable to the maps of today, revealing in the second half of the twentieth century its own series of extraordinary landform changes. The major geographical changes during this time period included emergence of the Strait of Bosphorusmarker and Skagerrakmarker during glacial epochs, which respectively turned the Black Seamarker and Baltic Seamarker into fresh water, followed by their flooding (and return to salt water) by rising sea level; the periodic filling of the English Channelmarker, forming a land bridge between Britain and the European mainland; the periodic closing of the Bering Straitmarker, forming the land bridge between Asia and North America; and the periodic flash flooding of Scablandsmarker of the American Northwest by glacial water. The Great Lakes and other major lakes of Canada, and Hudson Bay, are also just the results of the last cycle, and are temporary. Following every other ice age within the Quaternary, there was a different pattern of lakes and bays.

The climate was one of periodic glaciations with continental glaciers moving as far from the poles as 40 degrees latitude. Few major new animals evolved, again presumably because of the short—in geologic terms—duration of the period. There was a major extinction of large mammals in Northern areas at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. Many forms such as saber-toothed cats, mammoths, mastodons, glyptodonts, etc., became extinct worldwide. Others, including horses, camels and cheetahs became extinct in North America.

Quaternary glaciation

Glaciation took place repeatedly during the Quaternary the Ice Age – a term coined by Schimper in 1839 that began with the start of the Quaternary about 2.58 Ma and continues to the present-day.

Last glaciation

In 1821, a Swissmarker engineer, Ignaz Venetz, presented an article in which he suggested the presence of traces of the passage of a glacier at a considerable distance from the Alps. This idea was initially disputed by another Swiss scientist, Louis Agassiz, but when he undertook to disprove it, he ended up affirming his colleague's hypothesis. A year later, Agassiz raised the hypothesis of a great glacial period that would have had long-reaching general effects. This idea gained him international fame and led to the establishment of the Glacial Theory.

In time, thanks to the refinement of geology, it has been demonstrated that there were several periods of forward and backward movement of the glaciers and that past temperatures on Earth were very different from today.In particular, the Milankovitch cycles of Milutin Milankovitchmarker are based on the premise that variations in incoming solar radiation are a fundamental factor controlling Earth's climate.

During this time, substantial glaciers advanced and retreated over much of North America and Europe, parts of South America and Asia, and all of Antarctica. The Great Lakes formed and giant mammals flourished in parts of North America and Eurasia not covered in ice. These mammals became extinct when the last Ice Age ended about 11,700 years ago. Modern humans evolved about 190,000 years ago (source: Leakey). During the Quaternary period, mammals, flowering plants, and insects dominated the land.


External links

  • Silva, P.G. C. Zazo, T. Bardají, J. Baena, J. Lario y A. Rosas, 2007, Tabla Cronoestratigráfica del Cuaternario aequa., PDF version 1.4 MB. asociación española para el estudio del cuaternario (aequa), Departamento de Geología, Universidad de Alcalá Madrid, Spain. (Corelation chart of European Quaternary and cultural stages and fossils)

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