Gripped in the jaws of the Minch

By Richard Chiverrell and Tom Bradwell (photography by Alex Ingle)

1292 km, 51 cores, 177m of sediment, not a bad haul

1292 km, 51 cores, 177m of sediment, not a bad haul


We, the science crew of RRS James Cook Cruise JC123, sailed from Southampton Friday 3rd July bound for the last three transects of the NERC funded Consortium Britice-Chrono, our aim is to work out the timing of the last deglaciation of Britain and Ireland. After a quick stop outside the Solent to test the BGS vibrocore we made hast (10 knots) northwards through the North Sea running geophysical surveys for the North Sea sector (Transect 2) as we went, and in the early hours of Monday 6th July we rounded the northern tip of Scotland on schedule for our speedy (19 knots) tide-assisted passage through Pentland Firth between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland onwards to Transect 8 and the delights of the Minch palaeo-Ice Stream extending north from Skye between the Scottish Mainland and the outer Hebrides towards the edge of the continental shelf and the North Atlantic.

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The Minch seaway ~28-25,000 years ago received ice flow from the major fjords in NW Scotland feeding palaeo-ice stream, which extended north and northwest across the continental shelf. This ice stream dominated the northwestern sector of the British Ice Sheet (BIS). The land- and sea-scape probably developed over multiple glacial episodes, but the sea floor landforms and uppermost geology reflect the most recent deglaciation after 25,000 years ago. The aim of Britice-Chrono is to work out the timescale for this deglaciation, and this has involved fieldwork on land, dating outwash deposits on the Isles of Lewis, Skye and on mainland, and glacially eroded bedrock and boulders across the region. The offshore phase of this research has occupied us, so far, for the last seven days and nights, and involved surveying the sea floor for the morphology and the sediments using acoustic sounding techniques, but critically sampling the sea floor sediments. We have two coring systems on board, a percussive vibrating corer that can sample down to 6 m below the sea bed penetrating the tough materials laid down beneath and in front of former glaciers, and a gravity powered piston corer capable of sampling up to 18m in softer sediments. Our aim is to find shells in these glacial sediments to radiocarbon date and work out the timing of deglaciation.

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The success of the efforts for both our cruises relies on the excellent 24 hour work ethic, diligence and company of the cruise team, science crew, BGS and NOC Piston coring teams and the RRS James Cook captain and crew, all of whom do everything they can to help us. The middle 2-3 days of T8 were particularly nerve-wracking as the BGS crew toiled night and day to fix a particularly truculent problem with the vibrocorer, part of the solution to which lay in finding and removing an electrical break in the 1500 metres of cable that winches the BGS vibrocore to and from the sea bed. Thankfully time was spent obtaining important piston cores in the inner Minch and collecting valuable geophysical data, as the BGS team worked around the clock. As ever in Britice chrono’s experience, the BGS team, had everything needed on board to solve the problem, and cheers greeted the announcement of ready to go, and there followed ‘an in at the deep end’ test of the repair in 500-600 metres of water off the continental shelf fronting the Minch ice stream. Success, with 4.14 metres of glacimarine muds recovered, and on leaving the waters of T8 a further 11 vibrocores were recovered containing the key shell-rich glacimarine and subglacial muds our project requires.
Calm seas, epic sunsets

Calm seas, epic sunsets


Looking back on the Minch experience, it is certainly one of the prettiest (former) ice streams we have worked on during the Britice-Chrono cruises, with land in view and visiting the Inner Hebrides passing the Isles of Skye, Lewis/Harris and Raasay amongst others. The leg has been a considerable success, we have collected 1292.6 km of geophysical data (multi-beam and sub bottom profiler), 51 sediment cores (39 vibrocores, 12 piston cores) and 177.2m in vertical sediment profile; who said the Minch was a small ice stream? Our travels have taken us from Raasay Sound in the south over the edge of the continental shelf at 59° 15’ N, and into near shore waters fronting Cape Wrath and the Summer Isles. The answers to the Britice-Chrono geochronological questions must wait on many months of laboratory analysis, but we leave the Minch with all teething troubles behind us, and a growing bounty of cores in the locker. We are ready for the delights of Shetland…!
A 12m piston core (Tom Bradwell for scale ~ 1.74m)

A 12m piston core (Tom Bradwell for scale ~ 1.74m)

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