Initiation and development of the Laurentide and Cordilleran Ice Sheets following the last interglaciation

P. U. Clark, J. J. Clague, B. B. Curry, A. Dreimanis, S. R. Hicock, G. H. Miller, G. W. Berger, N. Eyles, M. Lamothe, B. B. Miller, R. J. Mott, R. N. Oldale, R. R. Stea, J. P. Szabo, L. H. Thorleifson, J. S. Vincent

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Fossil records from sites overridden by or adjacent to the Laurentide Ice Sheet indicate that the climate of the last interglaciation (Oxygen-Isotope Substage 5e, ca. 130-116 ka) was warmer than today. Following the last interglaciation, the Laurentide Ice Sheet first developed during Stage 5 over Keewatin, Quebec and Baffin Island. Along its northern margin, the ice sheet reached its maximum extent of the last glaciation during Stage 5. The ice sheet advanced across Baffin Island onto the continental shelf early during Stage 5 (5d?), whereas the advance into the western Canadian Arctic occurred late during Stage 5 (5b?). The ice sheet also may have advanced into the St Lawrence Lowland during Substage 5b, although this event may be younger (Stage 4). The Hudson Bay lowland became ice-free during Substage 5a. Retreat of the ice sheet on Baffin Island occurred during late Stage 5, probably Substage 5a. The exact timing of retreat from the western Canadian Arctic is unknown, but it occurred before 48 ka. The southern sector, including the St Lawrence Lowland, was ice-free during late Stage 5. The Hudson Bay lowland may have remained ice free through Stage 4 and much of Stage 3. Because of conflicting chronologies, however, it is more likely that this area was glaciated throughout Stage 3 and perhaps Stage 4. Nevertheless, the data demonstrate that the lowland was ice-free during part of the last glaciation. An independent ice cap developed over the Appalachian Uplands and advanced across Nova Scotia during Stage 4, perhaps as far as the edge of the continental shelf. The ice cap remained active over Nova Scotia as a setellite to the Laurentide Ice Sheet throughout the remainder of the last glaciation. The ice sheet advanced into the St Lawrence Lowland during Stage 4 and subsequently overwhelmed the local ice cap in the Appalachian Uplands, advancing perhaps into northern New England, but not farther south. The Lowland remained covered by the ice sheet until late Stage 2. The ice sheet may also have advanced into the Lake Ontario basin during Stage 4. The position of the northern margin of the Laurentide Ice Sheet during Stage 4 is not known, but it remained an unknown distance behind its maximum position reached during Stage 5. Cores from Baffin Bay indicate a substantial decrease in high-latitude glaciation during Stage 4. Following retreat, the Keewatin sector of the ice sheet may have remained over much of northwestern Canada as a quasi-stable ice mass until it readvanced during Stage 2. Similarly, the Baffin Island sector of the ice sheet may have remained largely intact. The southern margin of the ice sheet may have advanced into the Lake Ontario basin and upper Mississippi Valley during the middle of Stage 3 (ca. 50 ka), reaching its maximum extent of the last glaciation during Stage 2 (ca. 18-21 ka). Advance of the northern margin was younger (ca. 8-13 ka) than that of the southern margin; this advance was less extensive than the penultimate advance (Stage 5). Paleoenvironmental records indicate that the last interglaciation in areas covered by and near the Cordilleran Ice Sheet was as warm as, or warmer than, present. The Cordilleran Ice Sheet appears to have developed during Stage 5 or 4. At that time, it advanced over southern British Columbia and into the northern Puget Lowland. There is no record of this event in northern areas that were later covered by the ice sheet. The ice sheet disappeared before 59 ka, at the beginning of a lengthy nonglacial interval. Paleoenvironmental records indicate that climate was similar to the present during part of this interval. The ice sheet was absent, and glaciers probably were confined to mountain areas, throughout Stage 3. Climatic deterioration marking the end of this nonglacial interval may have begun as early as 29 ka. By 14-15 ka, the ice sheet had achieved its maximum extent of the last glaciation. Because there are few suitable dating methods capable of resolving events beyond the radiocarbon limit and because sites that preserve a record of events from the last glaciation are spatially restricted, we consider this synthesis as tentative and subject to significant revision as dating methods improve. Nevertheless, this perspective of the North American ice sheets through the last glaciation demonstrates their complex and dynamic behavior and attendant rapid fluctuations in ice volume.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-114
Number of pages36
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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