Tag Archives: Last Glacial Maximum

A Perfect Core……..

By Margot Saher, Dave Roberts and Rich Chiverrell (Photography by Alex Ingle)

Darkness. A great mass of ice overhead. The eerie rumbling of a large, uncompromising mass, slowly but steadily on the move. Below a thick layer of stiff red sediment, ground off the red bedrock, crushed and churned into a lumpy, sticky blanket of glacial till.

Dark coasts

Dark coasts

What would later be called Cape Wrath was only miles to the south, but there was no cape yet. Just the grinding of slow and unforgiving ice moving north into the North Atlantic. But the times were changing. The sun gained in strength, atmosphere and ocean started to warm and the gigantic ice mass, later to be known as the British-Irish Ice Sheet, was in decline. As its surface melted, more water reached its bed, and it began to slide helplessly over its own sediments. Slowly it thinned, and retreated in the direction of the Scottish mountains with the ocean lapping relentlessly at its edges.

There seemed to be no hope, but the ice sheet made one last bold dash towards the edge of the continental shelf before it faltered. The recently deglaciated seabed and freshly deposited grey ocean sediments were bulldozed and overrun again by ice on the move, and buried once more in a blanket of red till. Linear ridges (moraines) marked the limit of this temporary re-advance. But it was only a death throw; the re-advance didn’t get far. The ice sheet’s days were numbered. The advance stopped, and turned into irreversible retreat.

A geophysical search for the perfect core.......

A geophysical search for the perfect core…….

Against a backdrop of rumbling, calving icebergs, station JC123-048VC slowly became ice free, as the snout of the ice sheet moved back over the site. A cold, shallow sea took its place; first, still close to the snout of the ice sheet, where streams of meltwater rushing into the waiting sea water lay down a blanket of coarse sand. As the ice retreated further, taking the meltwater streams with it, the sea fell silent. Only fine sediments spat out into suspension by the dying ice sheet made it to our site, slowly covering it in a thick, grey blanket.

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The ice sheet sent a final message as the ice margins retreated south towards the land; a message from an iceberg. As it passed, melting, overhead of station JC123-048VC, pebbles slipped from its icy grip. They plummeted into the depths, impacting into the soft fine clay sea bed. As soon as this excitement started it was over, and the pebbles were slowly covered by more of the same grey clay.

With the great weight of the ice gone, the Earth’s crust rose like an ancient giant from its slumbers, pushing the Scottish continental shelf closer to the sea surface. Over time, the waters shallowed, and the seabed currents became stronger. The last vestiges of the glacial seafloor were scoured by contour currents, which deposited the spoils of an energetic coast on the eroded sediment below. Millennia later coarse sand and shell debris formed a layer of several inches thick. And then on Sunday the 12th July 2015 all changed.

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There was an unfamiliar thud, and then the uncanny sensation of a vibrating tube burrowing into the sediment from above. It cut through the sand in a jiffy, passed the pebbles, and into the soft clays. The tube slid through it like a hot knife through butter. No struggle with the coarse sands lain down by meltwater streams either, only slowing on reaching the stiff, red till. It battled its way into it for a meter and a half. Then the friction became too much. The vibrocorer stopped, and then the whole tube, now full of sediment, was pulled back up to the sea surface, and hoisted back up onto the deck of the RRS James Cook, the ship it had come from. Peace returned once again on to the sea floor, at core site VC123-048VC, a few miles north of Cape Wrath, on the northwestern edge of Scotland; a land mass now devoid of ice sheets and glaciers.

The core came on board and was cut into sections, labelled, scanned, and split. Finally, we, the scientists who had planned the project, planned the cruise, sailed all the way from Southampton to Cape Wrath, and waited for the British Geological Survey (BGS) to deliver the core, first laid eyes on the sediment. The story was there: a stiff basal till deposited beneath the ice sheet; fines marking the first incursion of the sea; further glacial till documenting the ice re-advance, meltwater stream sediments deposited in front of the retreating ice margin; the fine clays deposited when the ice began to recede southwards containing drop-stones from the icebergs, and the marine sand of the modern seafloor. That was what we had come for. And this was the 48th core; none of the previous 47 had told the story of the vanishing British ice quite this clearly.

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Hopefully we’ll be getting more cores like this in the coming three weeks of the cruise. We need this story told in every sector of the British-Irish continental shelf. Only then will we have what we set out for: the complete saga of the Last British-Irish Ice Sheet.

Sun setting on the Celtic Sea and B-C Transect 4

By James Scourse

A wonderful place.......

A wonderful place…….

The first of the BRITICE-CHRONO marine transects (transect 4, Celtic Sea) was completed late on Saturday evening. It has been hugely successful – the result of unbelievably excellent weather and sea state, detailed planning and effective delivery by a great team. This has been a controversial and enigmatic part of the British-Irish Ice Sheet for decades with generations of Quaternary geologists attempting to reconstruct glacial events from meagre and sporadic sequences. It was the focus of my PhD back in the early 80’s. A lot of this was spent onshore on the Scillies where the evidence suggested that the Late Devensian maximum advance straddled the northern islands – a conclusion that caused me not inconsiderable grief at the time because large and influential parts of the UK Quaternary community could not accept that the last ice sheet reached this far south. Subsequent work with colleagues using new techniques has supported this original interpretation. I also analysed a series of 12 or so BGS vibrocore samples recovered in the 70’s from the central and southwestern Celtic Sea containing “glacigenic” facies. A northern suite resembling the Scilly Till I interpreted as basal till facies, whereas a southern group – containing spectacular microfossil assemblages – appeared to be glacimarine. On the basis of this available evidence I suggested a mid-shelf grounding line and marine terminus to the Irish Sea Ice Stream. I was unable to explain the origin of some apparently “basal” type diamictons very close to the shelf break; they might possibly be iceberg turbates. More recently I suggested – with additional information from palaeotidal simulations – that the huge Celtic Sea linear ridge bedforms are tidal features reworking the sediments of the terminal ice stream and the Channel River.

Then, starting in the late 2000’s, I became aware that Daniel Praeg from Italy and Steve McCarron from Ireland had become interested in these ridges and were suggesting in conference presentations (e.g. INQUA 2011) that the ridges might actually be subglacial “ giant eskerine” bedforms which, if it were true, would mean that the ice sheet reached right to the shelf break. In Daniel’s model the shelf break diamictons are just that – evidence for shelf edge glaciation. One of the original BGS cores – site 44 – recovered till from the flank of a sand ridge which might suggest that the ridges at least partly pre-dated the glacial event; Daniel, following Pantin & Evans (1984) suggested that the ridges have a carapace of glacigenic sediment and were therefore overridden by ice. But, alternatively, do the glacigenic sediments dive through and under the ridges? A major unanswered question was/is the stratigraphic relationship of the glacigenic sediments to the ridges. There was something faintly ironic in all this: I’d had a lot of grief having argued for an advanced southerly position for the ice sheet, and now here was another team arguing for an even more spectacularly extended southerly limit.

Daniel, with great persistence and motivation, has organised a series of geophysical and coring campaigns with Italian, Irish and BGS colleagues – the last in February-March this year – to attempt to resolve the two models. Spectacularly their last cruise recovered overconsolidated diamicton and normally consolidated glacimarine sediments close to the shelf edge at the southern end of Cockburn Bank (for further details). I won’t steal their thunder because their work is being prepared for publication, but it is fascinating and has injected energy into our researches in this area. Daniel and Steve and colleagues Dayton Dove and my former research student Gill Scott, are now working alongside BRITICE-CHRONO colleagues to help address these questions. Having Daniel as a participant on this James Cook cruise has been a delight and the two hypotheses have been constructively batted to and fro, day and night, with lots of jocular repartee on the nature of things emerging on the sub-bottom profiler; “that’s clearly a buried drumlin”, “no, it’s a proto tidal sand ridge” etc etc.! Were that all scientific controversies were discussed in such a friendly, stimulating and constructive way.

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So, what have we found? Searching for glacigenic sediments in this area is like looking for a needle in a haystick, so aggressive was the subsequent transgressive episode. Much of the sedimentary evidence has simply been eroded (incorporated into sand ridges??!) or buried. The BGS only found glacigenic sediments in 12 cores of the hundreds that were taken. Well, about a third of all our coring deployments recovered glacial or glacimarine sediments, from sites extending from the shelf edge to the Celtic Deep, a total of 14 vibrocores and 5 piston cores. This success is a testament to painstaking preparation – including a reconnaissance geophysical cruise – led by Katrien Van Landeghem, Sara Benetti, Lou Callard and colleagues – so that our targets were well defined. Excellent onboard sub-bottom data has also been crucial, pored over night and day by Daniel, Katrien, Colm, Richard and myself, and the expertise of the BGS and NOC coring teams. There is no doubt that these samples and their contextual geophysical data will transform our understanding of the LGM in the Celtic Sea, a topic that continues to fascinate, bemuse and, occasionally, infuriate. One of our key targets, site 44, stubbornly refused to yield anything but sand – dubbed the “sands of woe” by Lou Callard – that left Daniel, head in hands, muttering “Oh bloody, bloody, hell”!

What about the two hypotheses…well, I already have some modified interpretations emerging – new working hypotheses if you like – but I’m not going to be pushed on these until we have the data analysed from the cores. Having said that, I think Daniel might be partly right and partly wrong, and that I, too, might have been partly right and partly wrong. Such is science!

Rapid retreat of the Irish Sea Ice Stream – just out in the Journal of Quaternary Science

Irish Sea Ice Stream

A new paper has just been published by Richard Chiverrell and a hefty team of Britice-Chrono co-workers (James Scourse, Katrien van Landeghem, Chris Clark, Colm O Cofaigh, Dave Evans, Danny Mccarroll, Colin Ballantyne) presenting the first Bayesian integration and modelling of all the dating control for the marine sectors of the largest ice stream that the last British-Irish Ice Sheet ~ 24,000 years ago. The modelling shows very rapid retreat for this marine-terminating ice stream over greater distances (650 km) and timescales (8000 years) than is available from short term (decadal) observations of present day ice stream margins. The modelling shows this retreat 24,000 years ago was rapid and linked with climatic warming, sea-level rise, mega-tidal amplitudes and reactivation of meridional circulation in the North Atlantic. But, significantly the pattern of retreat appears uneven with a pulsed pattern of retreat attributed to the passage of the ice stream between normal (sloping away from the ice margin) and adverse (sloping towards) ice bed gradients and changes in the geometry or marginal constriction of the ice stream. To read more click here.

The methodology and application kind of formed an important test case for Britice-Chrono as we attempt to constrain rates of and controls on marine ice stream retreat over millennial timescales for eight ice stream radiating out from the last British-Irish Ice Sheet. The methodology outlined in the paper will underpin and be used as a guide for our data collection for the wider British-Irish Ice Sheet. It would be quite good fun to play around with some of the available chronology for other ice streams…..

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