Knowledge about the Holocene evolution of the Greenland ice sheet (GrIS) is important to put the recent observations of ice loss into a longer-term perspective. In this study, we use six new threshold lake records supplemented with two existing lake records to reconstruct the Holocene ice marginal fluctuations of the Qassimiut lobe (QL) – one of the most dynamic parts of the GrIS in South Greenland. Times when the ice margin was close to present extent are characterized by clastic input from the glacier meltwater, whereas periods when the ice margin was behind its present day extent comprise organic-rich sediments. We find that the overall pattern suggests that the central part of the ice lobe in low-lying areas experienced the most prolonged ice retreat from ~9–0.4 cal. ka BP, whereas the more distal parts of the ice lobe at higher elevation re-advanced and remained close to the present extent during the Neoglacial between ~4.4 and 1.8 cal. ka BP. These results demonstrate that the QL was primarily driven by Holocene climate changes, but also emphasises the role of local topography on the ice marginal fluctuations.
In South Greenland the 100 km wide Qassimiut lobe (QL) is presently one of the most climate sensitive parts of the Greenland ice sheet (GrIS)1 and it also experienced notably large changes during the Holocene2. The QL consists of several relatively fast-flowing marine terminating outlet glaciers intersected by more passive landbased ice2 (Fig. 1). The central proximal part of the ice lobe is situated below 500 m a.s.l. and the more distal parts (flanks) of the ice lobe lie between c. 900 m–1500 m a.s.l. Ice loss of the QL is dominated by melting but calving ice production is appreciable at a number of the marine terminating glaciers3. During the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)4 the GrIS extended to the shelf break in South Greenland and it began to disintegrate around ~19–18 cal. ka BP5,6,7. By ~14.1 cal. ka BP the southern tip of Greenland was ice-free and the outer part of Ikersuaq Fjord at Julianehåb Bay was deglaciated slightly later at ~12 ka8,9,10. The ice margin reached the present extent by ~11.1–10.5 ka11,12. Radiocarbon ages of reworked organic molluscs in Little Ice Age (LIA) moraines suggest that the ice margin of the QL experienced large fluctuations during the Holocene2 and sediment cores from the ice marginal Qipisarqo lake reveal that the central part of the QL was retracted behind present day extent from ~9.1–0.4 cal. ka BP13. In contrast, the ice margin to the east retreated behind its present extent ~6.9 cal. ka BP and readvanced at ~3–2.8 cal. ka BP and ~0.4 cal. ka BP during the subsequent LIA11. Previous research has concluded that the response of the QL was mainly governed by climatic changes and that the differences of ice marginal response were related to the local topographic setting between the two threshold lake sites11. However, it is not clear to what extent local topography influences the ice marginal behaviour and this warrants further investigation. Here, we present new constraints on how the QL responded to Holocene climate forcing mechanisms.
Results–Core Description and Interpretation
In this study, we use proglacial threshold lakes to constrain the ice marginal fluctuations of the QL. Threshold lakes are located adjacent to the ice margin and by analysing the sediment cores it is possible to determine when the glaciers are present within the lake catchment (i.e. similar ice extent as today) and periods where the ice margin was retracted and significantly smaller than today14. These changes are clearly seen in the sediment cores as changes from clastic to organic-rich sediment (see methods). We cored and analysed six new threshold lakes (Figs 2, 3, 4, 5); two are from the central part of the lobe (Sermilik, Kangerdluatsiaup tasia), three are from the margin of the ice lobe (Akuliarusseq, Storesø, Rundesø) and one is located 50 km northwest of the QL (Kingigtoq). These new results will, together with the existing data from South Greenland, give a more coherent picture of the Holocene ice marginal fluctuations of the QL.
Kingigtoq lake is located 550 m a.s.l. near the Ukassorssuaq glacier c. 30 km from the present ice margin. It presently receives meltwater from outlet glaciers that terminate on land and it has to retreat an unknown distance (km’s) before the meltwater inflow ceases (Fig. 1). The lake is 6 km long and 3.2 km wide and consists of several sub-basins up to c. 60 m deep (Fig. 2a). Two cores were retrieved from the southern part of one of the sub-basins – one from the central part at 33 m water depth (Core 1219) and one close to the shore at 6 m water depth (Core 1220). Cores 1219 and 1220 have been correlated and subdivided into five sub-units – three clay units 1, 3, 5 interlayered with clay-gyttja units 2, 4 (Fig. 3a). The age models from the two cores (1219, 1220) are based on six bulk ages and one macrofossil age (Fig. 6). At 14 cm a paired terrestrial macrofossil and bulk age suggest an offset of 650 ± 33 years and this offset has been used in the age models for both cores. In addition, a number of links have been made between the two cores at the distinct clay units at 41 and 4 cm in core 1219 and 1220, respectively.
The clay units are interpreted as representing periods with glacial meltwater input to the lake whereas the clay-gyttja units reflect periods where the ice margin is retracted behind the present extent. The two age models are considered reliable although the timing of the middle clay unit, unit 3, is somewhat uncertain. Based on the age model, the lake was deglaciated before 9.5 cal. ka BP. Meltwater inflow occurred until ~9 cal. ka BP and again from ~4.5 to 3 cal. ka BP and was interrupted by a period of clay-gyttja deposition although the timing is uncertain because of the poorly constrained age model at this interval (Fig. 7). The most recent inflow of meltwater began ~0.3 cal. ka BP during the LIA. In between the periods with meltwater inflow the ice margin was retracted and clay-gyttja was deposited.
Sermilik lake is located 100 m a.s.l. in a small depression, 4 km from the present ice margin at the central part of the QL (Fig. 1). The lake currently receives meltwater and the ice margin has to retreat at least several kilometres before the meltwater inflow to Sermilik lake ceases (Fig. 2b). The lake is 400 m wide and 200 m long and it consists of several smaller basins up to 6 m deep. Cores from three sites were retrieved from the northern part of the lake: 1205 and 1207b (overlapping cores) at 4.4 m water depth and 1209, 1211, 1212 (1211 and 1212 are overlapping cores) at 4.2 m water depth. The cores have been correlated and subdivided into three units: a lower unit composed of silty-clay (core 1212 has more sandy sediments); a middle unit composed of gyttja with several distinct mm-to-cm thick layers of sand; and an upper unit composed of silty-clay (Fig. 3b). In addition, there is a thin layer of gyttja below unit 1 in core 1209. The radiocarbon ages of the gyttja are younger than the overlaying sediments and therefore the gyttja layer is believed to be a coring artifact caused when the corer accidently was lowered back into the sediments when it was pulled-up. We hypothesise the same issues occurred when retrieving core 1205, where three radiocarbon ages yield consistently younger ages than the succession above. Therefore we do not consider the results from these units of the cores in the following interpretation and discussion. The age models are based on twenty-one macrofossil and three bulk radiocarbon ages. At two intervals, paired bulk and macrofossil ages reveal an average offset of 516 ± 27 years and this has been used to correct for the lowermost bulk age at 330 cm.
The clayey-silt units 1 and 3 are interpreted as representing periods with glacial meltwater input to the lake, whereas gyttja unit 2 reflects a period where the ice margin was retracted behind the present extent. The thin sand layers in gyttja unit 2 (1205 and 1211) are interpreted as debris or grain flows formed close to the inlets of the lake where deltas have formed and not as evidence of presence of glacier ice in the catchment. According to the well-constrained age models (Fig. 6), the lake was deglaciated before ~9.6 cal. ka BP and the meltwater inflow continued until ~9.4 cal. ka BP. Meltwater inflow began again at ~0.5 cal. ka BP (Fig. 7).
Kangerdluatsiaup tasia (lake) is located in the foreland of the central part of the QL adjacent to the Qaleragdlit Sermia (glacier) that terminates in a fjord connected to Ikersuaq Fjord (Fig. 1). During the LIA the Qaleragdlit Sermia advanced more than 8 km from its present extent and dammed a valley forming the Kangerdluatsiaup tasia 100 m a.s.l.15. After the glacier retreated, the lake remained dammed by the sediments that were deposited during the LIA. Sediment outcrops reveal 15–20 m large delta foresets consisting of sand and gravel below topset sediments (braided river) in the proximal part of the lake close to the fjord. The lake is 4.4 km long and 2.7 km wide and it consists of several sub-basins up to 50 m deep (Fig. 2c). It was not possible to record lake bathymetry in the southern part of the basin because of lake-ice. One core was retrieved and analysed from a sub-basin in the northwestern part of the lake at 7.7 m water depth. The core consists of a lower unit of sandy sediments with pebbles and small stones and an upper unit of laminated clay (Fig. 4a). The lamina consists of mm-to-cm thick alternating silty-clay and silty-sand layers, which are clearly expressed in the magnetic susceptibility data. Little organic material is present in the core, particularly in the upper clay unit. However, four macrofossil and bulk samples from the lower unit and one macrofossil sample from the upper unit have been dated (Fig. 4a).
The lower unit is interpreted as a soil covering the valley floor whereas the laminated clay was deposited when the valley was dammed by the Qaleragdlit Sermia and meltwater flowed into the valley and deposited foresets and topsets in the proximal part of the lake and bottomsets in the distal part. The bulk and macrofossil ages of the soil are not in chronological order and range from ~2.1–6.7 cal. ka BP (Fig. 4a). However, we consider the two macrofossil ages most reliable, which suggest an age of soil formation between ~5.2 and 6.7 cal. ka BP. We interpret the clay deposition on the valley floor soil to represent a disconformity and therefore do not use those ages in the age model. Instead, we use the youngest radiocarbon age of macrofossil within the clay as a minimum limiting age and conclude that the meltwater inflow began >0.14 cal. ka BP during the LIA (Fig. 7).
Akuliarusseq lake is located adjacent to the outlet glacier that terminates in the Ikersuaq fjord in South Greenland (Fig. 1). It receives meltwater when the ice margin is located close to the LIA limit, but at present there is no inflow of meltwater to the lake. Echo soundings reveal that the elongate lake consists of two basins separated by the remnants of an end-moraine that acts a deep sill (Fig. 2d). Two cores, 1202 and 1203, were retrieved at 20.6 and 17.3 m water depth, respectively. The two cores have been correlated and subdivided into four units (Fig. 4b). The changes between the units of gyttja and clay are very distinct in the cores and the lower boundary between the gyttja and clay is sharp, whereas the boundary between clay and gyttja is transitional. The lower unit 1 only occurs in core 1203 and consists of gyttja with distinct 2–10 cm thick sand layers. Unit 2 has been subdivided into three units and consists of clay interlayered with 2–15 cm gyttja. Unit 3 comprises laminated gyttja followed by unit 4 consisting of massive to laminated clay. The age model of Akuliarusseq lake is based on fifteen radiocarbon samples of which three are bulk samples (Fig. 6). The bulk samples appear in good agreement with the terrestrial radiocarbon ages and hence no offset correction is applied. Clay bands based on lithology and Potassium (K counts) in the two cores have been linked during age modelling at depths 211, 189, 141 and 89 in core 1203 with depth 145, 139, 127 and 41 cm in core 1202. The lower part of core 1202 has not been dated because of absence of organic material in the clay. The two samples from the first gyttja layer (unit 2B) are bulk ages, and therefore we have more confidence in the age model from core 1203. Accordingly, we base our conclusion mainly on the age model from core 1203 in the lower part and use both age models in the upper part of the cores where they agree very well.
The clayey-silt units are interpreted as representing periods of glacial meltwater input to the lake, whereas the gyttja units reflect periods where the ice margin was retracted behind the present extent. The distinct sand layers in the gyttja in core 1203, which is located close to a small inlet in the most distal part of the lake, are interpreted as sediment debris flow deposits and not as evidence of presence of glacier ice in the catchment. Based on visual inspection and the sediment proxies, there is good correlation between the upper and the lower clayey-silt unit in the two cores. Deglaciation of the lake basin is not recorded in the cores because the core bottoms out in gyttja with a basal age of ~5.5 cal. ka BP (Fig. 7). Meltwater inflow was recorded during three events: ~3.4–3.0 cal. ka BP, 2.5–1.9 cal. ka BP and again from ~0.4 cal. ka BP until the most recent ice retreat, which has left a thin layer of gyttja at the top of core 1203.
Storesø og Rundesø
Storesø and Rundesø (lakes) are located 30 km north of Narsarsuaq and were overridden when the Nordgletscher and Kiagtût sermiat (glaciers) merged and formed the Narsarsuaq moraines in the east-west orientated valley draining into Nordbosø15. The lakes received meltwater during the Narsarsuaq stage, but not during the LIA where the meltwater ponded in Hullet (proglacial lake) and was drained subglacially below Kiagtût sermiat into the Narsarsuaq valley15. Storesø is a 1.7 km long and 0.6 km wide lake and consists of several sub-basins. The core was retrieved at 14.5 m water depth (Fig. 2e). Rundesø is a circular lake with a diameter of 500 m and was cored at 9.9 m water depth (Fig. 2e). One core from each lake was analysed and they showed a similar lithology composed of two units (Fig. 5). The lower unit, unit 1, consists of laminated clay and the upper unit, unit 2, consists of gyttja. Four bulk and three macrofossil radiocarbon samples of the two cores have been dated. However, due to the inconsistent results with inverted ages (outliers) no age models have been made from the two lakes. Instead the few reliable ages are used to estimate the approximate timing of the change from clay to gyttja in the two lakes.
The lower clay unit 1 is interpreted as representing a period of glacial meltwater input to the lake whereas the gyttja reflects a period where the ice margin was retracted behind the Narsarsuaq stage extent. In Storesø the uppermost bulk age in the clay is ~0.6 cal. ka BP and in Rundesø the transition between clay and gyttja is fixed between ~0.7 and 0.4 cal. ka BP (Fig. 5). Accordingly, meltwater flowed into the lakes from >0.9–0.6 cal. ka BP after which the ice margin retreated out of the catchment of the lakes (Fig. 7).
The initial deglaciation is recorded in two of the six new threshold lakes showing that the area was deglaciated by ~9.6 cal. ka BP. Furthermore, the records reveal that the QL ice margin retreated outside the lake catchment areas between ~9.3–9.0 cal. ka BP (Fig. 7). This agrees well with the Qipisarqo lake record, which shows gyttja deposition starting at ~9.1 cal. ka BP13. It is also consistent with the ages of reworked organic material in LIA moraines, indicating that the ice margin of QL was retracted by ~9 cal. ka BP2. One exception is the Lower Nordbosø where the glacier remained within the catchment until ~6.9 cal. ka BP, most likely as a result of local topography rather than being governed by climate11. The timing of the initial ice retreat based on threshold lakes is ~1.3–1.9 ka; younger than inferred from 10Be surface exposure ages proximal to the LIA moraines, suggesting that the ice margin retreated within the late Holocene maximum extent by ~11.2–10.6 ka in South Greenland12. This discrepancy may be attributed to two issues: First, the threshold lake records are minimum limiting ages from the base of the sediment cores, which is often clay-rich and lacking dateable organic material. Second, the 10Be ages record when the ice retreated from the location proximal to the LIA moraines and thus it should be regarded as a maximum age of when the ice margin could have retreated behind the present extent, assuming that the early Holocene ice retreat occurred without any pauses. Accordingly, The QL ice margin reached the present extent by ~11.2–10.6 ka12 after which it, in most places, retreated behind the present extent during the initial deglaciation phase at minimum ~9.3–9.0 cal. ka BP (Fig. 8a).
Following the initial deglaciation, the ice margin retreated behind its current margin until the Neoglacial when the ice margin on the flanks of the QL lobe (Akuliarusseq, Lower Nordbosø) and 50 km north of the QL (Kingigtoq) reached its present extent between ~4.4 and 3.0 cal. ka BP. The ice remained at its present position from ~3.0 to1.9 cal. ka BP with a short period of ice retreat (Figs 7 and 8b). In contrast, the ice margin in the central part of the QL (Qipisargo, Sermilik, Kangerdluatsiaup tasia) remained retracted until the LIA, although it is likely that the central part of the lobe made a readvance similar to the marginal part of the lobe during the Neoglacial (Fig. 8b). A Neoglacial advance has also been recorded in threshold lakes in other areas of Greenland and the timing of the meltwater influx appear in most lakes at ~3–2 cal. ka BP14,16,17,18,19,20,21. However, some lakes in West and Southeast Greenland received meltwater as early as ~6.3 and ~5.0 cal. ka BP, respectively14,16. During this time the ice sheet has been shown to be smaller than present. Therefore, this seems to suggest that the ice marginal response in some places is strongly influenced by local topographic conditions rather than being governed by climate changes alone. This period of retracted ice margin coincides with the Holocene Thermal Maximum (HTM) ~8–5 cal. ka BP where the local air temperatures in South Greenland was as much as 2–4 °C warmer than present22,23 and when there was increased inflow of warm Atlantic water in East and West Greenland24,25,26,27. Recent numerical modelling based on a large number relative sea level observations from Greenland suggest that the GrIS reached a minimum Holocene ice extent ~4 ka ago and contributed with 16 cm to the global sea level28. This modelled ice volume minimum occurs rather late compared to the temperature maximum in Greenland, but it corresponds well with threshold lake records in southern Greenland and also suggests a significant inertia between local temperature forcing and ice sheet response16.
After the Neoglacial readvance that culminated between ~3 and 1.8 cal. ka BP the QL retreated in all sectors and gyttja was deposited in the lakes until ~0.5–0.2 cal. ka BP. Subsequently, the ice margin re-advanced to its LIA position (Figs 7 and 8c). The period with retracted ice margin corresponds to the last part of the Roman Warm Period (~2.25–1.6 cal. ka BP) the colder European Dark Ages (~1.6–1.25 cal. ka BP) and the Medieval Warm Anomaly (~1.25–0.75 ka cal. ka BP). However it is still unresolved how these late Holocene climate events affected local climate in Greenland. Some records show a reduced inflow of warm Atlantic water in fjords during the Roman Warm Period and the Medieval Warm Anomaly29, while other records show a strengthening of the of Atlantic water advection24,25,26,27,30 and increased atmospheric temperatures22,31 suggesting that the warmer climate most likely triggered the retracted ice margin of QL during this period. One exception is the Kiagtût Sermiat (glacier) near Narsarsuaq, which advanced outside the LIA position and formed the Narsarsuaq moraine. The age of the moraine was originally dated to ~1.2 cal. ka BP using minimum limiting radiocarbon ages of lake sediments32. However, a more recent study based on 10Be surface exposure ages suggests that Narsarsuaq moraine was formed and abandoned by 1.5 ka and the ice margin has been within or at its LIA extent since 1.3 ka33. These data suggest that the Kiagtût Sermiat advanced at 1.5 ka and remained close to the LIA moraine until ~0.6 cal. ka BP after which it retreated behind the LIA extent. Our results from Storesø and Rundesø also show that the Kiagtût Sermiat was retracted from c. 0.6 cal. ka BP. This behaviour is unlike the general pattern of the QL that remained retracted until ~0.5–0.2 cal. ka BP where the ice margin reached its LIA position and therefore this suggests that the Kiagtût Sermiat is not representative of the ice margin fluctuations in southern Greenland. Instead it may reflect that Kiagtût Sermiat was influenced by local topographic conditions or it may have experienced a surge-type advance, although there is no historical evidence in support of this hypothesis.
In summary, using six new threshold lake records combined with two existing threshold lake records, radiocarbon ages of reworked organic remains in LIA moraines, and published 10Be surface exposure ages we have constrained the Holocene glacial history of the QL – the southernmost part of the GrIS. The locations of the threshold lakes that have been analysed from various places around the QL, in conjunction to the published data, provide a unique opportunity to assess both the spatial and temporal resolution of the ice marginal changes. At the central part of the QL the ice margin was retracted from the initial deglaciation, ~9.3–9.0 cal. ka BP until the LIA ~0.5–0.2 cal. ka BP. At the margins of the QL and adjacent to the ice lobe this long period of retracted ice margin position was interrupted by a Neoglacial readvance to the present ice extent between ~4.4 and 1.9 cal. ka BP. In all sectors of the QL, the ice margin re-advanced during the LIA between ~0.5 and 0.2 cal. ka BP. These results clearly show that multiple threshold lakes may be needed to obtain a comprehensive history of ice marginal fluctuations of a larger ice lobe and that a single threshold lake record may not be sufficient to infer ice marginal fluctuations for a large part of the ice sheet. However, in general, the results show that the southern margin of the GrIS responded to the recorded Holocene climate forcings and also emphasises the role of local topography on ice marginal changes.
We analysed sediment cores from six threshold lakes located adjacent to the present ice margin distal to the QL in South Greenland to obtain a better understanding of its Holocene ice marginal fluctuations. We chose these threshold lakes because they only receive meltwater and clastic sediments (silt and clay) during periods of close-to-present ice extent, whereas non-glacial organic rich sediments (gyttja) are deposited during intervals with restricted ice extent in the catchment34. This approach has successfully been adapted to study ice marginal fluctuations of the GrIS and local ice caps in Greenland11,13,14,16,18,19,21.
The lakes were identified using satellite and aerial photographs. In the field, an echo sounder with a built-in GPS was used to measure the lake depth and create a bathymetric map. The lakes were cored using a custom built piston corer capable of obtaining 4 m of sediments at a lake depth up to 50 m. One exception is the Kangerdluatsiaup tasia (lake) that was cored using the Uwitec coring equipment. After retrieval, the cores were kept in an upright position and drained before being packed and shipped back to the laboratory where they were stored at 2 °C. In the laboratory the cores were split in half, cleaned and a lithological description was made. An ITRAX core scanner was used to take high-resolution pictures and measure micro-XRF and magnetic susceptibility (MS) at every 2 mm and 0.5 mm, respectively. The XRF scans were made at Aarhus University core scanning facility with a molybdenum tube set at 30 kV and 30 mA with a dwell time of 30 seconds. Prior to analysis the sediment surfaces were carefully flattened and subsequently covered with thin (4 μm) ultralene film. A step size of 2 mm was selected to capture possible elemental variations in even small laminations. To illustrate the changes from gyttja to clastic sediments Ti, K or Si are often used as a measure of clastic input11,35. In this study we have used K normalized by incoherent and coherent to remove various instrumental scattering36. Loss-on-ignition (LOI) was analysed for every 1 cm by combustion of 2 cm3 sample at 550 °C for 4 hours37.
Samples for radiocarbon dating were sub-sampled with the primary objective to date clastic layers (meltwater) within the cores. We preferably sampled and identified terrestrial macrofossils in 1-cm intervals. When terrestrial macrofossils were absent, we used moss or bulk samples (humic acid) for radiocarbon dating. Using bulk sample to estimate the age of sediments can be problematic because bulk samples integrate carbon of both allochthonous and autochthonous origins. Consequently eroded soil carbon may for example in some cases constitute a major fraction of the bulk carbon. Hence bulk 14C ages therefore often deviate substantially from the true age of sediments. Further, as the origin of bulk carbon will depend on hydrology, catchment processes and morphology the bulk 14C age offset will most often deviate between different lakes38,39. The 14C bulk age offset can be estimated using paired bulk and terrestrial macrofossil samples in order to correct unpaired bulk 14C ages16. The samples were dated at the AMS 14C Centre at Aarhus University (AAR), Lund University (LU) and Belfast University (UBA). The age models are based on radiocarbon ages of 40 macrofossils and 18 bulk sediment samples that have been converted into calendar years using Oxcal 4.2 and calibrated to calendar years using IntCal1340,41 and are quoted as cal. yr BP or cal. kyr BP (Supplementary Data set 1). Depth-to-age models were constructed using the depositional model method of Oxcal 4.2 except for lakes Kangerdluatsiaup tasia, Rundersø and Storesø where there are too few radiocarbon ages to make a reliable age-depth model. In all age models the age of the top sediment is set to the year of coring.
How to cite this article: Larsen, N. K. et al. Holocene ice marginal fluctuations of the Qassimiut lobe in South Greenland. Sci. Rep. 6, 22362; doi: 10.1038/srep22362 (2016).
This work is a part of the X_Centuries project funded by the Danish Council Research for Independent research (FNU) (grant no. 0602-02526B), Villum Foundation, and the Centre for GeoGenetics. KKK acknowledges support from the Danish Council Research for Independent research (grant no. DFF - 4090-00151). We thank prof. Ian Snowball for lending us the Uwitec coring equipment.