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

June 14, 2018, University of Manchester
Credit: University of Manchester

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 led by scientists from The University of Manchester and University of Aberdeen 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 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 250 m and generated icebergs nearly 300 m 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, the new research, which has been published in the journal Science Advances, shows 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.

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

The research required a multidisciplinary approach and Dr. Rachel Harding, a researcher based at The University of Manchester, said: "The North Sea basin has been subsiding for millions of years, continually preserving layer upon layer of evidence for past ice sheets, the evidence for which is not available onshore. Using geophysical data we then searched these different layers for traces of long-disappeared ice sheets."

Dr. Andrew Newton, from Queen's University Belfast and a visiting researcher at the University of Manchester, co-led the project with Dr. Brice Rea from the University of Aberdeen. Dr. Newton said: "From these results we discovered that if you were to visit the North Sea 2.5 million years ago, Britain would have been under an ice and you would have seen massive icebergs floating around the North Sea and as far south as the coast of the Netherlands."

Professor Mads Huuse, also from the University's School of Earth and Environmental Science, continued: "This work has completely rewritten our understanding of the glacial history of the North Sea and shown that large ice sheets frequently covered the British Isles from 2.5 million years ago. Then, from about 1.9 million years ago, the British and Scandinavian ice sheets often merged together in the middle of the North Sea across different ice ages, encasing much of northwest Europe under a blanket of ice."

Explore further: Discovery of ancient undersea spirals may improve understanding of climate change

More information: Extensive marine-terminating ice sheets in Europe from 2.5 million years ago. Science Advances (2018) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar8327

Related Stories

A new picture of the last ice age

March 17, 2016

At the peak of the last ice age, a vast ice sheet covered northern Europe, spanning from the British Isles, across Scandinavia and into Russia in the east and the Barents Sea in the north. A new reconstruction of this ice ...

Recommended for you

Greenland ice loss quickening

December 7, 2018

Using a 25-year record of ESA satellite data, recent research shows that the pace at which Greenland is losing ice is getting faster.

New study explains creation of deadly California 'firenado'

December 6, 2018

A rare fire tornado that raged during this summer's deadly Carr Fire in Northern California was created by a combination of scorching weather, erratic winds and an ice-topped cloud that towered miles into the atmosphere, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Thorium Boy
1 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2018
Ice-ages. Proven, verfied and supported by data and the historical record. Unlike the fantasy of man-made global warming.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2018
Ice ages. Proven, verified and supported by data and the historical record. Unlike Thorium Bore's cheap, drive-by comment.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2018
Thorium boy's got to be either the laziest troll or the stupidest person I've ever seen.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.