The last ice age took just six months to take effect, according to scientists at the University of Saskatchewan.
While previous research had indicated that the ice age took a decade to arrive, geological sciences professor William Patterson reckons that a sudden slowdown of the Gulf Stream meant that ice spread across Europe in just a few months.
The Younger Dryas ice age started about 12,800 years ago, and lasted around 1,300 years. It is believed to have been caused when a lake in Canada burst its banks, flooded the North Atlantic with cold water, and disrupted the Gulf Stream.
Professor Patterson bases his conclusions on carbon isotope measurements from mud samples taken in Ireland. He used precision robotic scalpel to scrape off layers of mud just 0.5mm thick.
Each layer represented three months' worth of sediment deposits, meaning that variations in temperature over very short periods could be measured.
The scientists now hope to be able to take even finer samples, potentially allowing climate data covering just a single day to be captured.
The research appears in New Scientist.