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4 May 2017

New Comprehensive Polar Seafloor Atlas Reveals ‘Fingerprint’ of Past Glaciers

If we are to accurately predict how changing climates may influence our planet as temperatures continue to climb, gaining an understanding of how the Earth reacted to similar occurrences throughout its history is of vital importance. Now, in an effort to do just that, more than 250 marine geologists and glaciologists from around the world have come together to compile years’ worth of seafloor and glacial landform images into the most comprehensive and high-resolution atlas of the seafloor of the North and South Poles ever to be created.

Img: British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
Known as the Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms, the atlas covers an area roughly the size of Great Britain and is filled with a wealth of geological phenomena. These include deep scratches carved into the seafloor by drifting icebergs, as well as massive glacial lineations, which are defined by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) as “streamlined ridges up to tens of kilometres long moulded on the beds of fast-flowing glaciers.”

The atlas features and describes more than 35 individual landforms, each of which provides a little extra insight into the glacial past of our planet, allowing scientists to examine the ‘fingerprint’ of glaciers and ice sheets long-since-disappeared to see how they may have been influenced by changing climates. From there, they hope to be able to estimate how the glaciers of today may react to a similar shift in climate.

The new atlas has been made possible by great advances in both icebreaker ships, which allow researchers new levels of access to the Polar Regions, and the state-of-the-art acoustic mapping techniques used to capture the necessary high-resolution imagery of the seafloor.

Dr Kelly Hogan, a geophysicist at BAS and an editor of the volume, says of the new atlas:

“It’s exciting to see the atlas finally in print. It’s a huge achievement to bring together all these images in a way that will enable us to interpret the polar seafloor landscape like never before. And it’s a beautiful representation of what the seafloor can tell us about the past, much like a tree ring. For the first time it brings together examples of the more widely known glacial landforms. For example mega-scale glacial lineations offshore the Antarctic Peninsula but also of rare, enigmatic features like 40 km-long needle-shaped ridges in the Barents Sea and frost polygons – raised mounds with geometric patterns – formed in a permafrost landscape (then submerged by the sea) in the Laptev Sea, Eastern Siberia.

“The value in having these beautiful exemplars in one volume is that we can now compare features from a range of locations and climatic settings (mild to extreme cold) and gain key information on past ice dynamics and ice retreat.”

Lead Editor Professor Julian Dowdeswell, Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University, also commented:

“The individual glacial landforms and groups of landforms presented in the atlas cover a wide geographic spread from the coldest environments on the planet in East Antarctica to the warmest areas where ice reaches the sea like the fjords of Chile or Alaska. Most examples in the atlas were created since the last glacial about 20 000 years ago, but it also includes landforms from “ancient” glaciations. For example, glacial lineations that are several kilometres long are found across the Murzuq Basin in Libya, formed by an ice sheet that grew over Africa around 450 million years ago when the continent was sitting over the South Pole.  These “ancient” glacial landforms are strikingly similar to the features we see on the seafloor around Antarctica today that were made by an expanded Antarctic Ice Sheet during the last glacial cold period.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.