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Journey to the Ice Age

Endless winters. Frozen oceans. 20,000 years ago, much of Earth was covered in sheets of ice. We call this time the Great Ice Age. What was it like to live during this frozen time?

By Tricia Culligan
From the September 2020 Issue
Lexiles: 500L-600L, 600L-700L
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ROAR! You’re running for your life. 

You sprint across the icy ground. Behind you is a 600-pound monster. It’s a saber-toothed tiger—one of the deadliest animals of the Ice Age. The beast snarls, revealing massive razor-sharp teeth. Don’t look too closely or you might faint. Two of the bladelike fangs are 8 inches long!

The beast charges after you, its claws sinking into the ice. Your heart slams against your chest. The mighty animal crouches, ready to pounce. You brace yourself ...

But wait. Of course, you’re not really in the Ice Age. How could you be? The last major ice age ended about 12,000 years ago. It was called the Great Ice Age.

ROAR! You’re running for your life.

You race across the icy ground. Behind you is a 600-pound monster. It’s a saber-toothed tiger. It’s one of the deadliest animals of the Ice Age. The beast has huge razor-sharp teeth. Don’t look too closely or you might faint.

The beast charges after you. Its claws sink into the ice. Your heart slams against your chest. The mighty animal gets ready to pounce ...

But wait. You’re not really in the Ice Age. How could you be? The last major ice age ended about 12,000 years ago. It was called the Great Ice Age.

A World of Ice

A World of Ice

Ice ages are long periods of time when Earth’s average temperature drops. The Great Ice Age lasted for more than 2 million years. During its peak, the planet was about 10 degrees colder than it is today. You may not think that’s a big deal. But small changes in Earth’s temperature can cause major changes to the planet. 

During the Great Ice Age, lakes and oceans became icy plains. At times, ice sheets called glaciers covered about a third of Earth’s land. This included Canada and much of the northern United States. That means, long ago, the place you call home may have been locked under ice!

It would have been a dangerous time to be alive. Just ask the early humans who lived back then. They took shelter in caves to stay warm. (That’s where the term cavemen comes from!) 

Our early relatives painted images onto cave walls. This cave art gives us a snapshot of what life was like back then—a world of endless, icy winters and mega-beasts. Hunters hurled sharpened spears at terrifying monsters. This was the age of elephant-size woolly mammoths and 600-pound woolly rhinos. And don’t forget about that saber-toothed tiger. Aah!

Ice ages are long periods of time when Earth’s average temperature drops. The Great Ice Age lasted over 2 million years. The temperature on Earth was about 10 degrees colder than it is today. You may not think that’s a big deal. But small changes in temperature can cause big changes to the planet.

During the Great Ice Age, lakes and oceans froze. There were huge ice sheets called glaciers. These covered Canada and parts of the United States. Long ago, the place you call home may have been under ice!

It was a dangerous time to be alive. Just ask the early humans who lived back then. They took shelter in caves to stay warm. (That’s where the term cavemen comes from!)

Early humans painted on cave walls. This art shows us what life was like back then. It was a world of icy winters and giant animals. Hunters threw spears at large beasts. This was the age of woolly mammoths and 600-pound rhinos. And don’t forget about that saber-toothed tiger. Aah!

The End of the Ice Age

The End of the Ice Age

Don’t worry though. Most of these giant beasts died out when the Great Ice Age ended. Over time, the planet warmed. Glaciers melted, forming lakes and valleys. Forests grew back.

But not everything from the Ice Age disappeared. Some glaciers still remain. And luckily for us, humans survived. As the planet changed, humans and some animals adapted, or changed, with it. And scientists keep finding new clues to learn more about this fascinating frozen time in history.  

The Great Ice Age ended. And most of these giant beasts died out. Over time, the planet warmed. Glaciers melted. Forests grew back.

But not everything from the Ice Age disappeared. Some glaciers are still here. Luckily for us, humans survived. And scientists keep learning more about this amazing time in history.  

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Learn More

The Great Ice Age may have ended, but did you know that we’re most likely living in an ice age now? Ro Kinzler, a Geologist at the American Museum of Natural History, explains why by answering an important question from a 3rd Grade student.

Teach This

Small changes in the Earth’s temperature can have a huge impact on our environment and the way we live. Help your students understand climate change and global warming with this article from OLogy, a website from the American Museum of Natural History created just for kids.

Continue the Journey

You may have heard of the woolly mammoth, but what about the flat-headed peccary or the Yukon horse? Learn more about these and many other Ice Age animals here.

Watch This

Cave Art 101 is a 3-minute National Geographic video that will introduce your students to the fascinating art created by early people.

Explore This

The Great Ice Age may have ended 12,000 years ago, but in many parts of the world, glaciers still exist. Check out this interactive feature on DK Find Out to learn more about different types of glaciers and how they affect the land.