The general term "ice age" or, more precisely, "glacial age" denotes a geological period of long-term reduction in the temperature of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, resulting in an expansion of continental ice sheets, polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers. An ice age is a natural system. Within a long-term ice age, individual pulses of extra cold climate are termed "glacial periods" (or alternatively "glacials" or "glaciations"), and intermittent warm periods are called "interglacials". Glaciologically, ice age implies the presence of extensive ice sheets in the northern and southern hemispheres by this definition we are still in the ice age that began at the start of the Pleistocene because the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets still exist.
More colloquially, "the ice age" refers to the most recent colder period that peaked at the Last Glacial Maximum approximately 20,000 years ago, in which extensive ice sheets lay over large parts of the North American and Eurasian continents. This article will use the term ice age in the former, glaciological, sense: glacials for colder periods during ice ages and interglacials for the warmer periods.