New research reveals British Isles buried under ice sheets from 2.5 million years ago

  • New study found ice sheets submerged Britain a million years earlier than previously thought
  • Research is a significant breakthrough in our understanding of the extent of glaciation in North West Europe
  • Insights gleaned after scientists analysed sediment cores and seismic data from deep beneath the North Sea

An ice sheet

Breakthrough research has revealed the British Isles were repeatedly submerged under an ice sheet extending to the centre of the North Sea over a million years earlier than previously thought.

A team including scientists from the University of Sheffield, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Manchester analysed sediment cores and seismic data from deep beneath the North Sea, and discovered that extensive ice sheets repeatedly covered much of the UK and Ireland from 2.5 million years ago.

At the same time, an even larger ice sheet covered much of Scandinavia. Back then the North Sea, was narrower and deeper than it is today, like a large ‘fjord’. Periodically, the ice sheets from the British Isles and Scandinavia advanced into water depths of around 250m and generated icebergs nearly 300m high.

By 1.9 million years ago the two ice sheets repeatedly merged in the centre of the North Sea, filling the ‘fjord’, as they advanced and retreated in response to climate changes controlled by the Earth’s orbit.

Up to now, the scientific consensus has been that glaciation on this scale first occurred in the North Sea about 1.1 million years ago.

However, new research, which has been published in the journal Science Advances, reveals it first happened 1.4 million years earlier. This marks a significant breakthrough in our understanding of the extent of past glaciation in North West Europe.

Grant Bigg, Professor in Earth Systems Science at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Geography said: "This work has extended the period over which we know the British Isles has been periodically glaciated by over a million years and convincingly demonstrates that ancient iceberg scours deep beneath the sea-bed of the North Sea came from British or European ice sheets, rather than from icebergs from Greenland or North America."

The study was carried out by geoscientists from the universities of Sheffield, Aberdeen, Manchester and Queen’s University Belfast, Apache North Sea Ltd., RPS Ichron, Mærsk Olie og Gas and Lloyds Register.

Dr Brice Rea, from the University of Aberdeen, led the project. He said: “Through our work with Apache North Sea we obtained sediment core samples from beneath the North Sea at a depth where they are rarely obtained, and combined this with a range of geophysical datasets that were being worked on at the University of Manchester.”

Dr Rea added: “Coalescence of the British ice sheet and ice from Scandinavia, which we show occurred at about 1.9 million years ago, wasn’t thought to have happened until about 780,000 years ago. Our findings completely change our understanding of how far back in time large ice sheets covered the British Isles and merged with ice from Scandinavia.”

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

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Sean Barton
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University of Sheffield
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