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Irish Continental Shelf Could Unravel Climatic History of NE Atlantic

The Irish continental shelf is a perfectly preserved ice age landscape which could unravel the climatic history of the north east Atlantic and predict how polar icesheets might respond to future global warming, according to University of Ulster scientist Dr Paul Dunlop.

Dr Dunlop, who is a member of the Quaternary Environmental Change Research Group at the Environmental Sciences Research Institute at Ulster’s Coleraine Campus, addressed a workshop during the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012 conference in Dublin (Sunday 15th July).

Other speakers at the workshop included Ulster Environmental Change lecturer, Dr Sara Benetti; Colm O'Cofaigh, Durham University; Hans Petter Sejrup, University of Bergen in Norway; and Stephen McCarron, NUI Maynooth.

The ESOF - Europe’s largest science conference, which is held every two years in a major European city - is dedicated to scientific research and innovation. At ESOF meetings leading scientists, researchers, young researchers, business people, entrepreneurs and innovators, policy makers, science and technology communicators and the general public from all over Europe discuss new discoveries and debate the direction that research is taking in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

‘The Impact of Ice Sheet and Ocean Interactions on Climate Change’ workshop discussed how a decade of scientific investigation of Irish submarine territory in the north east Atlantic by the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute, in collaboration with scientists from universities throughout Ireland, has uncovered a fascinating picture of a perfectly preserved ice age landscape across the Irish, Norwegian and Greenland continental shelves.

Dr Dunlop explains that since ice sheets are climatically controlled systems, conducting research on new data collected on the Irish, Greenland and Norwegian shelves will provide an unprecedented opportunity to unravel climate change history in the North Atlantic region.

“Ice sheets are dynamic systems that form an integral part of the global climate system. They provide a unique opportunity to investigate climatic change as they both affect and are affected by it. As they grow and decay, ice sheets leave a rich geological record of their behaviour that can help us to unravel the timing and driving mechanisms of major climatic events.

“The Irish continental shelf is a critical area for climate research and recently discovered data on the Irish seabed can potentially be used to better understand the climate history of this region and also how the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets might respond to future climate change.

“Recent developments in marine geophysical techniques enable scientists to reveal the pattern of glaciation on the continental shelf which is then used to reconstruct former ice sheet activity.”

He continues: “The many glacial features on the continental shelf off the north west of Ireland show that the former British and Irish ice sheets were once conjoined and expanded as far as the shelf edge between 27,000 to 29,000 years ago and that the breakup of these ice sheets was most likely initiated by rising global sea levels.

“This new data discovered off the north west coast of Ireland can potentially help us to understand the impact of a rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet on the climate of the north Atlantic region.”

Dr Dunlop adds that the former presence of ice on the Greeland continental shelf is indicated by often spectacular streamlined landforms, such as drumlins and ‘mega-scale glacial lineations’ which can reach over 10 km and are a geological record of fast moving ice streams that once drained large volumes of ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

The Greenland ice sheet is the largest in the Northern hemisphere today but there are major questions regarding its size during the last glacial maxima, the timing, rate and drivers of its advance and retreat and as such the ice sheet remains a major research frontier in glaciology.

‘The Impact of Ice Sheet and Ocean Interactions on Climate Change’ workshop was one of over 140 workshops taking place during ESOF.

Ulster’s Environmental Sciences Research Institute brings together pure and applied researchers who investigate a range of Earth systems, with an emphasis on those with societal relevance. Examples include research on natural hazards and climate change, as well as human and physical influences in ecological, freshwater, coastal, and maritime systems.

In the 2008 RAE, 90% of ES research was determined to be world leading, internationally excellent, or internationally recognised in terms of its originality, significance, and rigour.