Less ice in the Arctic Ocean 6000-7000 years ago

Written by: Gudmund Løvø

Recent mapping of a number of raised beach ridges on the north coast of Greenland suggests that the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean was greatly reduced some 6000-7000 years ago. The Arctic Ocean may have been periodically ice free.

GreenlandBEACH RIDGE: The scientists believe that this beach ridge in North Greenland formed by wave activity about 6000-7000 years ago. This implies that there was more open sea in this region than there is today. (Click the picture for a larger image) Photo: Astrid Lyså, NGU

GreenlandPACK-ICE RIDGE: Pack-ice ridges form when drift ice is pressed onto the seashore piling up shore sediments that lie in its path. (Click for a larger image) Photo: Eiliv Larsen, NGU”The climate in the northern regions has never been milder since the last Ice Age than it was about 6000-7000 years ago. We still don’t know whether the Arctic Ocean was completely ice free, but there was more open water in the area north of Greenland than there is today,” says  Astrid Lyså, a geologist and researcher at the Geological Survey of Norway (NGU).

Shore features

Together with her NGU colleague, GreenlandICE COVER: Today, at the mouth of Independence Fjord in North Greenland, drift ice forms a continuous cover from the land. (Click for a larger image) Photo: Eiliv Larsen, NGUEiliv Larsen, she has worked on the north coast of Greenland with a group of scientists from the University of Copenhagen, mapping sea-level changes and studying a number of shore features. She has also collected samples of driftwood that originated from Siberia or Alaska and had these dated, and has collected shells and microfossils from shore sediments.

”The architecture of a sandy shore depends partly on whether wave activity or pack ice has influenced GreenlandSETTLEMENT: Astrid Lyså in August 2007 in the ruined settlement left by the Independence I Culture in North Greenland. The first immigrants to these inhospitable regions succumbed to the elements nearly 4000 years ago, when the climate became colder again. (Click for a larger image) Photo: Eiliv Larsen, NGUits formation. Beach ridges, which are generally distinct, very long, broad features running parallel to the shoreline, form when there is wave activity and occasional storms. This requires periodically open water,” Astrid Lyså tells me.

Pack-ice ridges which form when drift ice is pressed onto the seashore piling up shore sediments that lie in its path, have a completely different character. They are generally shorter, narrower and more irregular in shape.

Open sea

”The beach ridges which we have had dated to about 6000-7000 years ago were shaped by wave activity,” says Astrid Lyså. They are located at the mouth of Independence Fjord in North Greenland, on an open, flat plain facing directly onto the Arctic Ocean. Today, drift ice forms a continuous cover from the land here.
Astrid Lyså says that such old beach formations require that the sea all the way to the North Pole was periodically ice free for a long time.

”This stands in sharp contrast to the present-day situation where only ridges piled up by pack ice are being formed,” she says.

However, the scientists are very careful about drawing parallels with the present-day trend in the Arctic Ocean where the cover of sea ice seems to be decreasing.

“Changes that took place 6000-7000 years ago were controlled by other climatic forces than those which seem to dominate today,” Astrid Lyså believes.

Inuit immigration

The mapping at 82 degrees North took place in summer 2007 as part of the LongTerm project, a sub-project of the major International Polar Year project, SciencePub. The scientists also studied ruined settlements dating from the first Inuit immigration to these desolate coasts.

The first people from Alaska and Canada, called the Independence I Culture, travelled north-east as far as they could go on land as long ago as 4000-4500 years ago. The scientists have found out that drift ice had formed on the sea again in this period, which was essential for the Inuit in connection with their hunting. No beach ridges have been formed since then.

”Seals and driftwood were absolutely vital if they were to survive. They needed seals for food and clothing, and driftwood for fuel when the temperature crept towards minus 50 degrees. For us, it is inconceivable and extremely impressive,” says Eiliv Larsen, the NGU scientist and geologist.