Published 26.08.2009. Written by Endre Før Gjermundsen.

Icebound – enclosed in ice

Reconstruction of the last glacial Svalbard-Barents sea ice sheet.


The relevance of the icebound project is two-folded:

1. A better knowledge of the last glacial ice sheet has important implications for models studying hydrocarbon migration. Developing useful data about the last ice sheet load and its geometry on Svalbard is essential for constraining framework conditions of pressure development in the Svalbard Barents Sea.

2. Svalbard is a key region for understanding the interaction of ice and the thermohaline circulation (THC). Ocean-climate models suggest that rapid freshwater releases with the deglaciation of Northern hemisphere ice sheets are associated with fluctuations in the thermohaline ocean circulation. Earth system models will profit from data that constrain the volume of the last ice sheet and its deglaciation in order to predict future changes of the ocean circulation.


1. Since the first publication concerning the influence of glacial erosion and isostasy on hydrocabon bearing rocks in the Barents Sea (Kjemperud and Fjeldskaar, 1992) a considerable improvement in our understanding of the former Svalbard-Barents sea ice sheet has been established. Our present understanding of the last ice sheet is far more complex than a simple ice sheet with one ice dome having a thickness of 400-1200 m (Siegert and Dowdeswell, 2004). Based on geophysical measurements it is assumed that highly dynamic ice streams covered the fjord systems while many parts inland were covered by less dynamic cold based ice shown by terrestrial studies (Landvik et al., 2005; Andreassen et al., 2007; Dowdeswell et al., 2007; Ottesen et al., 2007; Andreassen et al., 2008; Ottesen and Dowdeswell, 2009). In a modelling investigation it has been suggested that the ice sheet loading effects the reservoir pressure and temperature on hydrocarbon phase separation and migration. Glacial erosion and changes in the thickness of the ice sheet coverage results in thermal disequilibrium and renewed hydrocarbon migration (Cavanagh et al., 2005; Cavanagh et al., 2006). The authors propose that during initial stages of interglacial conditions hydrocarbon gas reservoirs might experience leakage. A better reconstruction of glacial, interglacial and interstadial timing is a new avenue for a improved understanding of late hydrocarbon migration and present day leakage in the Barents Sea as boundary condition for hydrocarbon reservoir migration models.

2. Earth system models looking into feedback processes with the thermohaline ocean circulation provide clear indications that ice sheet-ocean interactions, ice melt and subsequent freshwater flux to the Nordic Seas and the Arctic Ocean play an important role in triggering shifts in the ocean circulation (Schmittner and Clement, 2002; Siegert and Dowdeswell, 2004; Death et al., 2006). Although significant uncertainties exist regarding the volume and timing of former ice sheets in many areas. The timing and volume of freshwater discharge into the Arctic Ocean from the Svalbard-Barents sea ice has never been quantified. Accurate quantification of past freshwater flux, and their timing relative to climate changes, is essential for calibrating earth system models, and improving their predictive power.

Status of knowledge

Major research efforts during the ESF-funded QUEEN project (Quaternary environment of the Eurasian North - until mid-2003) lead to the hypothesis that fast-flowing ice streams covered the fjord troughs flowing to the shelf edge (Siegert et al., 2001; Siegert and Dowdeswell, 2004; Allen et al., 2007). Main evidence comes from high-resolution seismics, bathymetry data and marine sediment studies (Elverhøi et al., 1995; Svendsen et al., 1996; Ottesen et al., 2005; Ottesen et al., 2007; Andreassen et al., 2008). In addition we have well documented evidence from terrestrial geological data sets of post-glacial isostatic uplift measured across high Arctic archipelagos (Forman, 1990; Forman et al., 1999; Forman et al., 2004; Svendsen et al., 2004).

In some regions between deeper fjord systems terrestrial evidence has been presented indicating ice-free regions or regions that were potentially covered with thin cold based glacier ice (Blake, 1962; Lehman and Forman, 1992; Landvik et al., 2005). With the rather new method of cosmogenic nuclide dating (CN) using two different cosmogenic nuclides 10Be, 26Al it is possible to investigate if bedrock surfaces were covered by cold based glacier ice or ice-free during the late Weichselian (Fabel et al., 2002; Briner et al., 2003; Briner et al., 2005; Briner et al., 2006; Ivy-Ochs and Kober, 2008). The CN method has been used previously in one research project on Svalbard supporting ice-free areas in the NW of the archipelago (Landvik et al., 2003). Within that study, the constraints on the dating method itself were not investigated.

There is geological data indicating that larger glaciations must have been significantly older than late Weichselian and large late Weichselian ice sheets had existed neither in northern Siberia nor in Beringia (Brigham-Grette, 2001; Svendsen et al., 2002). In the Arctic Ocean only limited IRD (ice rafted debris) is observed in comparison to earlier glaciations (Spielhagen et al., 2004). Preliminary CN results from a prequel study in Nordaustlandet indicates that the late Weichselian glaciation was restricted in comparison to the mid-Weichselian glaciation (Hormes et al., 2008; Hormes et al., to be submitted). The late Weichselian glaciation was constrained to the fjord geomorphology flowing along present fjord troughs, while the mid-Weichselian glaciation covered higher landscapes and the ice flow regime was detached from the fjords (Kaakinen et al., 2009; Hormes et al., to be submitted).

Therefore, there is still a lack of knowledge about the extension and thickness of the late Weichselian ice sheet on Svalbard in contrast to older glaciations.

The proposed project will combine new glacial geological evidence and CN dating to determine former ice sheet geometry in Svalbard, to provide a firm foundation as boundary conditions for hydrocarbon migration models in the Barents Sea and Earth system models to test their performance during last deglaciation.


The project will allow for more accurate former ice sheet geometry on Svalbard which will in turn provide more accurate boundary conditions for hydrocarbon migration models. We want to combine the following approaches in order to deliver some new terrestrial data of the ice sheet development in the Svalbard region.

  • Mapping glacial trimlines in selected mountain areas
  • Dating trimlines by means of cosmogenic nuclides (CN) in order to constrain the vertical dimensions of the last ice sheet inland
  • CN dating and bedrock source analysis of erratic boulders in order to constrain the age of deglaciation and ice flow directions during the late Weichselian

Project posters


  • Allen, R., Siegert, M.J. and Payne, A.J., 2007. Reconstructing glacier-based climates of LGM Europe and Russia - Part 1: Numerical modelling and validation methods. Climate of the Past Discussions, 3, 1133-1166.
  • Andreassen, K., Nilssen, E. and Ødegaard, C., 2007. Analysis of shallow gas and fluid migration within the Plio-Pleistocene sedimentary succession of the SW Barents Sea continental margin using 3D seismic data. Geo-Marine Letters, 27(2), 155-171.
  • Andreassen, K., Laberg, J.S. and Vorren, T.O., 2008. Seafloor geomorphology of the SW Barents Sea and its glacidynamic implications. Geomorphology, 97, 157-177.
  • Blake, W.J., 1962. Geomorphology and Glacial geology in Nordaustlandet, Spitsbergen., Graduate School of the Ohio State University, Ohio, pp. 470.
  • Brigham-Grette, J., 2001. New perspectives on Beringian Quaternary paleogeography, stratigraphy, and glacial history. Quaternary Science Reviews, 20(1-3), 15-24.
  • Briner, J.P., Miller, G.H., Davis, P.T., Bierman, P.R. and Caffee, M., 2003. Last Glacial Maximum ice sheet dynamics in Arctic Canada inferred from young erratics perched on ancient tors. . Quaternary Science Reviews, 22, 437-444.
  • Briner, J.P., Miller, G.H., Davis, P.T. and Finkel, R.C., 2005. Cosmogenic exposure dating in arctic glacial landscapes: Implications for the glacial history of northeastern Baffin Island, Arctic Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 42, 67-84.
  • Briner, J.P., Miller, G.H., Thompson Davis, P. and Finkel, R.C., 2006. Cosmogenic radionuclides from fiord landscapes support differential erosion by overriding ice sheets. GSA Bulletin, 118(3/4), 406-420.
  • Cavanagh, A., diPrimio, R. and Horsfield, B., 2005. Thermal history, ice loading and inversion of the SW Barents sea revealed by basin modelling., Geophysical Research Abstracts. European Geosciences Union, EGU Vienna.
  • Cavanagh, A., diPrimio, R., Scheck-Wenderoth, M. and Horsfield, B., 2006. Severity and timing of Cenozoic exhumation in the southwestern Barents sea. Journal of the Geological Society, 163(5), 761-774.
  • Dowdeswell, J.A., Ottesen, D., Rise, L. and Craig, J., 2007. Identification and preservation of landforms diagnostic of past ice-sheet activity on continental shelves from three-dimensional seismic evidence. Geology, 35(4), 359-362.
  • Elverhøi, A., Anders, E.S., Dokken, T., Hebblen, D., Spielhagen, R., Svendsen, J., Sørflaten, M., Rørnes, A., Hald, M. and Forsberg, C.S., 1995. The growth and decay of the Late Weichselian ice sheet in western Svalbard and adjacent areas based on provenance studies of marine sediments. Quaternary Research, 44, 303–316.
  • Fabel, D., Stroeven, A.P., Harbor, J., Kleman, J., Elmore, D. and Fink, D., 2002. Landscape preservations under Fennoscandian ice sheets determined from in situ produced 10Be and 26Al. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 201, 397-406.
  • Forman, S.L., 1990. Post-glacial relative sea-level history of northwestern Spitsbergen, Svalbard. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 102, 1580–1590.
  • Forman, S.L., Ingólfsson, Ó., Gataullin, V., Manley, W.F. and Lokrantz, H., 1999. Late Quaternary stratigraphy of western Yamal Peninsula, Russia: new constraints on the configuration of the Eurasian Ice Sheet. Geology, 27, 807-810.
  • Forman, S.L., Lubinski, D.J., Ingolfsson, O., Zeeberg, J.J., Snyder, J.A., Siegert, M.J. and Matishov, G.G., 2004. A review of postglacial emergence on Svalbard, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya, northern Eurasia. Quaternary Science Reviews, 23(11-13), 1391-1434.
  • Hormes, A., Akcar, N. and Kubik, P., 2008. Cosmogenic Nuclide Dating Results From Nordaustlandet Suggest Limited Late Weichselian Ice Sheet Coverage on Svalbard. Eos Trans. AGU, 89(53).
  • Hormes, A., Akçar, N. and Kubik, P., to be submitted. Cosmogenic nuclide dating results from Nordaustlandet suggest limited late Weichselian ice sheet coverage on Svalbard.
  • Ivy-Ochs, S. and Kober, F., 2008. Surface exposure dating with cosmogenic nuclides. Quaternary Science Journal, 57, 179-209.
  • Kaakinen, A., Salonen, V.-P., Kubischta, F., Eskola, K.O. and Oinonen, M., 2009. Weichselian glacial stage in Murchisonfjorden, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. Boreas.
  • Kjemperud, A. and Fjeldskaar, W., 1992. Plesitocene glacial isostasy - implications for petroleum geology. In: R.M. larsen, H. Brekke, B.T. Larsen and E. Tallerass (Eds.), Structural ad Tectonic Modelling and its Aplication to Petroleum Geology. Norwegian Petroleum Society, 187-195.
  • Landvik, J.Y., Brook, E.J., Gualtieri, L., Raisbeck, G., Salvigsen, O. and Yiou, F., 2003. Northwest Svalbard during the last glaciation: Ice-free areas existed. Geology, 31(10), 905-908.
  • Landvik, J.Y., Ingolfsson, O., Mienert, J., Lehman, S.J., Solheim, A., Elverhøi, A. and Ottesen, D., 2005. Rethinking Late Weichselian ice-sheet dynamics in coastal NW Svalbard. Boreas, 34, 7-24.
  • Lehman, S.J. and Forman, S.L., 1992. Late Weichselian glacier retreat in Kongsfjorden, West Spitsbergen, Svalbard. Quaternary Research, 37, 139-154.
  • Ottesen, D., Dowdeswell, J.A. and Rise, L., 2005. Submarine landforms and the reconstruction of fast-flowing ice streams within a large Quaternary ice sheet: The 2500-km-long Norwegian-Svalbard margin (57°–80°N). . Geological Society of America Bulletin, 117, 1033–1050.
  • Ottesen, D., Dowdeswell, J.A., Landvik, J.Y. and Mienert, J., 2007. Dynamics of the Late Weichselian ice sheet on Svalbard inferred from high-resolution sea-floor morphology. Boreas(36), 286-306.
  • Ottesen, D. and Dowdeswell, J.A., 2009. An inter-ice-stream glaciated margin: Submarine landforms and a geomorphic model based on marine-geophysical data from Svalbard. Geological Society of America Bulletin.
  • Siegert, M.J., Dowdeswell, J.A., Hald, M. and Svendsen, J.-I., 2001. Modelling the Eurasian Ice Sheet through a full (Weichselian) glacial cycle. Global and Planetary Change, 31(1-4), 367-385.
  • Siegert, M.J. and Dowdeswell, J.A., 2004. Numerical reconstructions of the Eurasian Ice Sheet and climate during the Late Weichselian. Quaternary Science Reviews, 23(11-13), 1273-1283.
  • Spielhagen, R.F., Baumann, K.H., Erlenkeuser, H., Nowaczyk, N.R., Nørgaard-Pedersen, N., Vogt, C. and Weiel, D., 2004. Arctic Ocean deep-sea record of northern Eurasian ice sheet history. Quaternary Science Reviews, 23, 1455-1483.
  • Svendsen, J.I., Elverhøi, A. and Mangerud, J., 1996. The retreat of the Barents Sea Ice Sheet on the western Svalbard margin. Boreas, 25, 244-256.
  • Svendsen, J.I., Astakov, V.I., Bolshiyanov, D.Y., Demidov, I., Dowdeswell, J.A., Gataullin, V., Hjort, C., Hubberten, H.W., Larsen, E., Mangerud, J., Melles, M., Möller, P., Saarnisto, M. and Siegert, M.J., 2002. Maximum extent of the Eurasian ice sheets in the Barents and Kara Sea region during the Weichselian. Boreas, 28, 234–242.
  • Svendsen, J.I., Alexanderson, H., Astakhov, V.I., Demidov, I., Dowdeswell, J.A., Funder, S., Gataullin, V., Henriksen, M., Hjort, C. and Houmark-Nielsen, M., 2004. Late Quaternary ice sheet history of northern Eurasia. Quaternary Science Reviews, 23(11-13), 1229-1271.