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Recent mapping of a number of raised beach ridges on the north coast of Greenland suggests that the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean was greatly reduced some 6000-7000 years ago. The Arctic Ocean may have been periodically ice free.

The climate in the northern regions has never been milder since the last Ice Age than it was about 6000-7000 years ago. We still don’t know whether the Arctic Ocean was completely ice free, but there was more open water in the area north of Greenland than there is today,” says Astrid Lyså, a geologist and researcher at the Geological Survey of Norway (NGU).

Shore features

Together with her NGU colleague, Eiliv Larsen, she has worked on the north coast of Greenland with a group of scientists from the University of Copenhagen, mapping sea-level changes and studying a number of shore features. She has also collected samples of driftwood that originated from Siberia or Alaska and had these dated, and has collected shells and microfossils from shore sediments.

”The architecture of a sandy shore depends partly on whether wave activity or pack ice has influenced its formation. Beach ridges, which are generally distinct, very long, broad features running parallel to the shoreline, form when there is wave activity and occasional storms. This requires periodically open water,” Astrid Lyså explains.

Pack-ice ridges which form when drift ice is pressed onto the seashore piling up shore sediments that lie in its path, have a completely different character. They are generally shorter, narrower and more irregular in shape.

Open sea

”The beach ridges which we have had dated to about 6000-7000 years ago were shaped by wave activity,” says Astrid Lyså. They are located at the mouth of Independence Fjord in North Greenland, on an open, flat plain facing directly onto the Arctic Ocean. Today, drift ice forms a continuous cover from the land here.

Astrid Lyså says that such old beach formations require that the sea all the way to the North Pole was periodically ice free for a long time.

”This stands in sharp contrast to the present-day situation where only ridges piled up by pack ice are being formed,” she says.

However, the scientists are very careful about drawing parallels with the present-day trend in the Arctic Ocean where the cover of sea ice seems to be decreasing.

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