Massive 12,000-Year-Old Flood May Have Triggered an Ice Age

A massive flood that occurred around 12,000 years ago may have pushed our planet back into an Ice Age. Glacial Lake Agassiz covered a large portion of Manitoba, northwestern Ontario, parts of eastern Saskatchewan and North Dakota, and northwestern Minnesota. It measured approximately 1,500 kilometers in length (932 miles), more than 1,100 kilometers in width (684 miles), and 210 meters in depth (689 feet) at its largest period. It formed when the giant Laurentide Ice Shield started melting around 16,000 years ago.

Since the flood from Lake Agassiz dumped water out at a jaw-dropping rate of more than 800 Olympic-size swimming pools each second, it’s not surprising that experts believe it was the largest ever known flood in history. The lake suddenly sent large amounts of water into a northwest channel known as the Clearwater-Athabasca Spillway and into the Mackenzie River Basin, then finally into the Arctic Ocean.

An international study, which was led by the University of Alberta, suggested that the flood may have brought a warming Earth back into the Ice Age. Specifically, they wanted to know exactly how much water spilled into the channel. Sophie Norris, who is a former U of A PhD student in the Faculty of Science and now a postdoctoral research fellow at Dalhousie University, explained, “We know that a large discharge has gone through the area but the rate of the discharge or the magnitude was pretty much unknown.”

Based on their research, they estimated that approximately 21,000 cubic kilometers of water was discharged from the lake in a time frame of less than 9 months.

What’s even more interesting was that the researchers found that when this massive flood occurred, the northern hemisphere was beginning to warm up but was suddenly put back into an Ice Age (this period is known as the Younger Dryas) as explained by Duane Froese who is Norris’ PhD supervisor as well as the Canada Research Chair in Northern Environmental Change in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, “During the Late Pleistocene, temperatures were returning to normal, when the Earth slipped back into an ice age,” adding, “We don’t know for sure that the flood caused the Earth to slip back into the ice age, but certainly if you put that much water into the Arctic Ocean, the models show you get cooling of the northern hemisphere climate.”

Their next job is to conclusively determine whether this flood was single-handedly the cause of the Ice Age’s return or if it was part of several contributing factors. The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

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