By Richard Chiverrell
Leaving the Celtic Sea and the delights of the Celtic Deep, noon on Sunday 27th July, the Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Cook homed in on Britice-Chrono Transect 3 and the delights of the Irish Sea. For me work levels already high increased, with Transect leader duties to fulfil, and the challenges of finding till – glacimarine mud contacts throughout the sector, and do not forget the shells/fossils for the critical dating targets. That said without Katrien’s (van Landeghem) constant input and support it would have been ridiculous, the work in advance of the cruise identifying targets and new locations drew on considerable effort and collaboration focused on this marine sector of T3 over the past 2-3 years. The success of the efforts for T3 obviously relied on the excellent work effort, diligence and company of the cruise team, science crew, BGS and NOC Piston coring teams and the RRS James Cook captain and crew, all whom did everything they could to help us. Not singling people out, but I thank Katrien for constant input, advice and support as co-leader on this transect and Colm as Science Lead on JC106 cruise.
In the Celtic Sea, the ship was home to the friendly academic interplay between James and Daniel, the Irish Sea also offered up a number of longer standing and perhaps more vociferous historical debates! Understanding and interpretation of the nature and extent of glacimarine conditions in the Irish Sea basin has ebbed and flowed for 4-5 decades, with some proponents holding for a full glacimarine ice margin, others subaqueous margins with more restricted access to the ocean and the other end member glacilacustrine basins separated from the sea. For all these views a comprehensive borehole and geophysical survey targeting environments across the sea floor had the potential to advance understanding, but for Britice-Chrono we clearly needed glacimarine conditions and sediments to provide the marine shells and microorganisms that we can radiocarbon date to gain a chronology for retreat of ice from the basin. Marine fossils have been recovered from coastal glacigenic sediment sequences surrounding the Irish Sea for centuries, but debate continues over whether they are in situ or derived, eroded from the sea floor, during ice advance and then redeposited in glacial sediment. If in situ they offer the potential to constrain retreat of ice margins and the development of glacimarine conditions, if derived they cannot really advance our dating control. Some challenging fieldwork and some painstaking analysis of the fossils and microfossils lies ahead.
Our journey from the Celtic Deep ~ 51°25’N to our first survey and core sites west of Anglesey around 53°15’N took just over 12 hours at a steady ~10 knots. Our first sites, a bit of a late addition and product of general brain-storming, were ~ 13-14 miles west of Holyhead and targeted the deep waters of northern extensions of St Georges Channel. The location kind of bridges T4 and T3, and we wanted some indication of deglaciation of the deep waters between Holyhead and Dublin. On reflection I was not sure what to expect here, but we had planned a sub-bottom profiler SBP and multibeam survey line as an initial exploration, but circumstances and our temperamental SBP conspired against us. The multibeam data on the other hand were excellent, it was a decent trough 2 miles wide 30-40m deep and we used the multibeam to avoid surface sand waves. Our aims were to avoid surface sand and access the underlying laminated glacimarine units, 2.5 hours and two vibrocores later, some success >3m of mud ending in reddish (an Irish Sea glacial signature!) stiff muds. These laminated or bedded sediments hopefully were lain down under marine conditions fronting the ice sheet as the ice margin retreated to higher ground east and north between Anglesey and the Isle of Man.
From noon 28th July we moved east and north between the Isle of Man and North Wales, and into a region a large part for me where my interest in this research started, working for and collaborating with Geoff Thomas on sections and sediment all around the Irish Sea. In the deeper waters between the Isle of Man and North Wales, our multibeam data gave us a view onto a very well preserved glacial landscape of drumlins and flutes, moulded elongate low hills shaped by the passage of ice. Uncovered as ice melted and then preserved beneath water probably ever since, their summits are grooved with markings probably formed by ice-bergs calving from and then grounding on the landform surface fronting this glacier. Guided by the multibeam sea floor topography and our shallow geophysical data we targeted hollows in the landscape with shallow fills of sediment overlying the glacial surface. Our vibrocorer can penetrate to ~5-6m depending on the sediments, absence of large cobbles or bedrock, heavy seas and luck. Fingers were regularly crossed and the only wooden items in the all metal BGS vibrocorer cabin are now getting quite worn by us touching them for luck and the right sediments. Broadly we divided the Irish Sea basin into four sub areas, 1. South of a line between the Isle of Man and Barrow-in-Furness completed by 21.30 on 30th July, the deeper waters between the Isle of Man and western Cumbria by 18.30 on 31st July, the Solway Firth (between the Isle of Man and Scotland) by 5am 1st August and finally the deep waters west of the Isle of Man by 11.30am 1st August. >500km of survey line, 34 cores in total, almost all of them reaching the reddish glacimarine muds often laminated some with dropstones and in many cores stiff diamicts with clasts typical in character of Irish Sea glacial tills seen in coastal cliff sections around the basin. We had the sediment contexts we desired, the subglacial to ‘glacimarine’ transition and water-lain ice marginal muds from settings across the transect. The nature of this water-body and answers to the Britice-Chrono geochronological questions must wait on many months of laboratory analysis, but I left the Irish Sea northwards for the Malin Sea and T7, satisfied and with the feeling that the sediments and geophysics alone will fill in a significant and long standing gap in our understanding of the last glaciation of the Irish Sea.