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Collapse of Antarctic ice shelves in response to a warming climate is well documented, but its legacy in terms of depositional landforms is little known. This paper uses remote-sensing, structural glaciological and sedimentological data to evaluate the evolution of the c. 25000 km2 George VI Ice Shelf, SW Antarctic Peninsula. The ice shelf occupies a north–south-trending tectonic rift between Alexander Island and Palmer Land, and is nourished mainly by ice streams from the latter region. The structure of the ice shelf is dominated by inherited foliation and fractures, and with velocity data indicates a largely compressive flow regime. The formation of a moraine complex at the margin of the ice shelf is controlled by debris entrained within foliation and folds. This englacial debris is of basal origin, and includes both local Mesozoic sedimentary and volcanic lithologies, and exotic crystalline rocks from Palmer Land. Folding of basal ice to a high level in the source glaciers on Palmer Land is required to bring the debris to the surface. These results have implications for understanding flow dynamics of ice shelves under compressive flow, and debris entrainment and moraine formation associated with palaeo-ice shelves.

Supplementary material:

Photographs of ice-shelf morphology, ice facies and ice structure; detailed descriptions of ice facies, including foliation logs, supporting evidence for interpreting sedimentary facies; complete dataset of sedimentological data, including triangular plots of clast shape, clast roundness histograms, particle-size distribution of sand-size and lower, and pie chart of local clasts versus exotic clasts from Palmer Land; and a table summarizing the characteristics of representative clasts in the ice-shelf moraine, based on thin-section analysis, with indication of their provenance are available at

Interpreting the dynamics and history of ice shelves is important for evaluating the response of ice sheets to climatic and oceanographic changes. Ice shelves have received considerable attention in the Antarctic Peninsula, as they have undergone sequential, rapid collapse (Vaughan & Doake 1996; Morris & Vaughan 2003; Cooke et al. 2005; Cook & Vaughan 2010), following a long period during which their grounding-lines had been stable (Rebesco et al. 2014). A detailed understanding of ice-shelf character and behaviour is therefore of immediate interest, yet the geological record of ice shelves is largely unknown. Geological and structural glaciological data can provide vital information concerning the evolution of ice shelves over time. However, apart from a few examples of moraines produced by floating glacier ice in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (England et al. 1978, 2009; Hodgson & Vincent 1984; Hodgson 1994; England 1999) and northern Norway (Evans et al. 2002), no palaeo-ice shelves appear to have been recognized in the geological record. Furthermore, only a few studies of modern ice-shelf moraines have been undertaken (Sugden & Clapperton 1981; Reynolds & Hambrey 1988; Glasser et al. 2006; Fitzsimons et al. 2012), so there is a need to characterize these features fully if new examples are to be discovered in the geological record.

The aim of this paper is to determine the composition and mode of formation of a moraine complex at the margin of the topographically constrained George VI Ice Shelf that is fed principally by the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet. This ice shelf has previously been considered vulnerable to collapse (Luchitta & Rosanova 1998). By applying structural glaciological and sedimentological principles, the dynamics of the ice shelf and its impact on the landscape are determined, from which inferences are drawn about its dynamic behaviour. This paper represents the most comprehensive analysis yet undertaken on how debris in an ice shelf is entrained and deposited.

Topographic, glaciological and geological setting of George VI Ice Shelf

Topography and glaciology

Since George VI Ice Shelf was first explored by the British Graham Land Expedition of 1934–37 (Stephenson & Fleming 1940), it has been the subject of numerous glaciological and geological investigations. It is the largest ice shelf on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, covering an area of c. 25000 km2 (Smith et al. 2007a,b), and measuring 450 km in length and 20–75 km in width (Holt et al. 2013; Fig. 1a, inset). It occupies a deep, steep-sided composite trough ranging from 500 to 1000 m in depth (Maslanyj 1987). The trough extends beyond the ice shelf across the continental shelf of Marguerite Bay, and was evidently occupied by a major ice stream from the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet at the Late Glacial Maximum (LGM) (Ó Cofaigh et al. 2005; Jamieson et al. 2012). Large outlet glaciers from the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet are the biggest contributor to the ice shelf (Fig. 1b). The ice shelf is subject to melting in summer, when extensive surface lakes develop (Reynolds 1981; Fig. 1a), and snow-free glacier ice is limited to the marginal zone adjacent to Alexander Island (Graham & Smith, 2012). The marginal zone in the vicinity of Ablation Lake and Moutonnée Lake (Heywood 1977), which is the subject of this investigation, was described by Stephenson & Fleming (1940) as an area of ‘pressure ice’ extending about 2 km from land, disposed in a series of parallel ridges. These ridges are associated with an ice-shelf moraine, which Sugden & Clapperton (1981) interpreted as the product of thrusting. Ablation Lake and Moutonnée Lake are both epi-shelf lakes that have a direct hydraulic connection to the sea (Roberts et al. 2009).

George VI Ice Shelf has a strongly negative mass balance (Pritchard et al. 2012), and is receding rapidly from both ends (Holt et al. 2013). Most significant in terms of mass loss are high basal melt-rates induced by warm currents flowing beneath the ice shelf (Jenkins & Jacobs 2008; Rignot et al. 2013; Graham & Smith, 2012), but at least one area of localized basal freezing has been identified at Hobbs Pool (Pedley et al. 1988). Basal freezing leads to entrainment of sediment and has been suggested as a means whereby Palmer Land erratic material can be transferred to Alexander Island (Sugden & Clapperton 1980).

Unlike the more rapidly collapsing, relatively unconstrained ice shelves further north and west, George VI Ice Shelf is largely under compression. This compression is evident from the west- to NW-directed flow across the Sound (Bishop & Walton 1981; Pearson & Rose 1983), and the form of the component flow units and structure derived from a Landsat multispectral scanner image from January 1973 (Reynolds & Hambrey 1988). From these data, it is evident that the ice adjacent to the Alexander Island shore originates from Palmer Land.

The complex flow regime gives rise to marked differences in thickness of the ice shelf (Fretwell et al. 2013). The thickest ice occurs in lobes extending from the grounding-lines of the major outlet glaciers from Palmer Land, notably the Bertram Glacier (c. 275 m), Ryder Glacier (c. 250 m) and Goodenough Glacier (c. 400 m), whereas thicknesses are less adjacent to Alexander Island, especially near Ablation Point (c. 125 m) (Fig. 1b).

Geological context

George VI Ice Shelf occupies a major rift separating two distinct geological terranes (British Antarctic Survey 1982; Bell & King 1998; Vaughan & Storey 2000). Alexander Island is principally composed of (1) the sedimentary Jurassic–Cretaceous Fossil Bluff Group in the east, with minor mafic volcanic rocks (Macdonald et al. 1999), and (2) the turbiditic Jurassic–Cretaceous LeMay Group in the west, which is an accretionary prism sequence (Burn 1984). The LeMay Group is unconformably overlain by Cretaceous–Palaeogene basaltic andesitic–rhyolitic volcanic rocks of the Alexander Island Volcanic Group (McCarron & Millar 1997). Plutonic rocks are also widespread in the north and far west (Care 1983). By contrast, western Palmer Land is dominated by three principal rock groups: (1) basement rocks, Silurian in part, comprising orthogneiss, metapelite and minor marble, calc-silicate and granulite that were metamorphosed to high-grade amphibolite facies in the Mesozoic Era (Harrison & Piercy 1991); (2) younger undeformed volcanic rocks consisting of Cretaceous mafic–intermediate lavas and pyroclastic rocks of the Antarctic Peninsula Volcanic Group, and Jurassic dacite–rhyolite ignimbrites and lavas of the Ellsworth Land Group (Hunter et al. 2006); (3) widespread Jurassic–Cretaceous plutons of the Antarctic Peninsula batholith (Leat et al. 1995), mainly granodiorites, tonalites and diorites, some of which have a foliated texture (Piercy & Harrison 1991).

Quaternary glacial and associated sediments, largely attributed to the LGM or younger events, are distributed in the low-lying ice-free areas adjacent to the ice shelf (Clapperton & Sugden 1982; Bentley et al. 2005; Roberts et al. 2008). The Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet filled the Sound and extended out to the continental shelf edge at the LGM (Payne et al. 1989; Bentley et al. 2005, 2006, 2009; Davies et al. 2012; Johnson et al. 2012). From the presence of Palmer Land erratics in ice-shelf moraines at elevations of 80–110 m above sea level (a.s.l.), it is evident that the Peninsula Ice Sheet was probably much thicker at the LGM (Sugden & Clapperton 1980; Clapperton & Sugden 1982; Smith et al. 2007a). Sugden & Clapperton (1981) mapped and described ice-shelf moraines related to the modern ice shelf along its western margin, where they occur sporadically along a stretch of 150 km of Alexander Island coastline. Sediment cores and barnacles suggest that there were two periods during the Holocene Epoch when George VI Ice Shelf was absent from the Ablation Lake area (Hjort et al. 2001; Smith et al. 2007b).


Satellite remote sensing and aerial photography for overall ice-shelf structure and dynamics

A cloud-free Landsat ETM+ 7 scene from 13 February 2003 was used to map longitudinal and transverse flow features, flow-unit boundaries and internal structures in the Bertram Glacier–Ablation Lake sector of the George VI Ice Shelf at a scale of 1:100000 using the structurally controlled lakes as a guide (Figs 1a and 2a). A combination of a true-colour band combination (30 m pixel resolution) and Landsat 7’s panchromatic band (15 m pixel resolution) were selected as they offered the greatest spectral contrast between ice, snow, water and shadow on the surface of the ice shelf. Within the field area, ASTER VNIR Level 1B Multispectral satellite imagery from 13 February 2009 (15 m resolution; swath 60 km) was used to map exposed structures, and used as a basis for plotting field observations (Figs 1a and 2b). The velocity data (Fig. 2a) for the Bertram Glacier–Ablation Lake segment of the ice shelf were obtained using interferometric synthetic aperture radar (Rignot et al. 2011).

Ice-structural mapping; foliation and fractures

Two main structures at the margin of the ice shelf were identified and recorded in the field: (1) a coast-parallel steeply dipping foliation (n = 112); (2) a set of cross-cutting fractures orthogonal to the ice margin (n = 93). Data are plotted on lower hemisphere equal-angle projections for two zones to accommodate change in the orientation of the coastline. Additional structures identified include isoclinal and similar folds and veins of clear ice cutting the dominant foliation. Although these were insufficiently abundant to undertake statistical analysis, they are important for resolving the structural history of the ice shelf.

Ice-shelf moraine morphology and sedimentology

To define the processes of ice-shelf moraine formation and to characterize the ice-shelf moraine landsystem, a range of standard sediment-analytical techniques and morphological analysis were utilized (Hubbard & Glasser 2005; Hambrey & Glasser 2012). Lithofacies are defined according to the proportions of mud, sand and gravel using a classification of poorly sorted sediments (Hambrey & Glasser 2003a). Other specific attributes of lithofacies documented include the following: bedding characteristics; texture, including estimates of gravel component and particle-size analysis of the sand and finer fraction using a combination of sieving and a SediGraph 5100 analyser; clast morphology including Powers (1953) roundness and shape defined by measurements of a-, b- and c-axes on sets of 50 clasts, and analysed using triplots and the RA/C40 index method of Benn & Ballantyne (1994); and clast-surface features such as striations and facets. These lithofacies were placed in the context of a series of eight transects measured from pre-modern ice-shelf terrain to ice-shelf bare ice across the moraine, approximately normal to the ice margin, using an Abney level and 30 m tape.

Clast provenance

The lithology of clasts sampled for sedimentological attributes was documented, with percentages of Alexander Island and Palmer Land clasts recorded. In addition, the full range of exotic and local clasts was sampled from the moraines adjacent to Ablation Lake (south) and Moutonnée Lake (north) and analysed using thin sections.

Analysis of ice-shelf dynamics in the Bertram Glacier sector

Ice flow in the Bertram Glacier–Ablation Lake sector is directed across the Sound towards the west and NW. Ice velocity maps (Rignot et al. 2011) show that Bertram Glacier has two zones of faster flow, separated by an area of slower moving ice. The southern portion of Bertram Glacier (Bertram (I); Figs 1a and 2b) crosses the Sound towards Ablation Lake. At its Palmer Land grounding-line, Bertram Glacier flows at c. 420 m a−1, gradually slowing to less than 20 m a−1 by the time it reaches Alexander Island, indicating that this portion of the ice shelf, like areas to the north and south, is under compression (Fig. 2a).

Morphology of ice shelf and bordering moraines

Seven distinct morphological zones can be identified between the source ice stream from the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet (Bertram Glacier), across the inner ice shelf, the ‘pressure ridges’ adjacent to Alexander Island and the actively forming moraines, to the valley sides (Fig. 3a), as follows.

(1) Palmer Land ice streams (Bertram Glacier in the sector studied)

From the Landsat imagery, surface features are dominated by a set of transverse crevasses and other intersecting crevasses, and a series of irregular troughs where inter-crevasse blocks have collapsed (Fig. 1a). As Bertram Glacier approaches George VI Ice Shelf, crevasses appear to be water-filled. Crevasses then close up and become draped by snow, surviving as crevasse traces.

(2) Ice-shelf surface (central)

Broad smooth, snow-covered ridges and depressions containing elongate ponds, connected by supraglacial streams, characterize the bulk of the ice shelf. Relief is on a scale of several metres and the distance between ridge crests is typically >100 m. Dolines mark flow-unit boundaries and there are no crevasses.

(3) Ice-shelf surface (western margin)

This is a zone of rough ice, 0.5–2 km wide, comprising a series of shore-parallel steep-sided ridges and troughs. Typically, these ridges are hundreds of metres long and have a relief of 10–15 m, and an amplitude of 50–200 m. Superimposed on this relief are metre-scale ‘ice ships’ (pinnacles), which are differentially weathered along the coast-parallel foliation (Fig. 3b), as well as supraglacial streams, ponds and cryoconite holes containing well-sorted sand or mud. In the vicinity of Moutonnée Lake (Fig. 4), the ice shelf is prevented from encroaching into this embayment by a bedrock bar (compare Ablation Lake, below). A vertical ice cliff across the mouth of the embayment rises some 20 m above the frozen lake surface, and is probably grounded on the lake bottom.

(4) Ice tongue (Ablation Lake)

A heavily fractured tongue of ice-shelf ice extends into the middle of the lake, pushing up lake ice into c. 5 m high pressure ridges.

(5) Ice-cored moraine

Two zones of debris characterize the edge of George VI Ice Shelf: active and ice-cored, and inactive with no apparent ice core (‘old’ degraded moraines; see (6) below). Sediment sampling (Fig. 4), lithofacies descriptions and eight morphological transects (Fig. 5) were undertaken within these two zones (Fig. 5). The ice-cored moraine comprises a veneer of clast-rich sandy diamicton and sandy gravel, from a few centimetres to a few metres in thickness, overlying ice-shelf ice (Fig. 6a and b). This ice normally has a foliation that is near-vertical or steeply dipping shelf-wards. The ice-cored moraine has a relief of about 20 m, and some of the ridges are sharp-crested, especially where debris is actively ablating from the underlying ice. Ablation is by sublimation in the sub-zero conditions of early summer, and later by melting. Sediment sublimating from ridge crests is blocky, but collapses to form debris flows during periods of thaw. However, despite extensive debris cover, the amount of debris in the ice is low, typically <10% by volume. The debris layers are parallel to the foliation (Fig. 3b). Boulders, commonly exceeding 1 m in diameter, are scattered over the ice-cored moraine, and include many of granite and gneiss originating from Palmer Land. Ablation and undercutting in lakes produces unstable ice cliffs up to 5 m high, from which ice blocks topple.

(6) ‘Old’ degraded moraines

These inactive moraines are composed of sandy gravel and clast-rich sandy diamicton, and there is no sign of buried ice. In some places these moraines occur as former ice-contact benches up to 80 m above sea level. There is a ‘lag’ of dispersed boulders on these surfaces, including Palmer Land erratics. Bedrock is visible only at the rock bar across the mouth of Moutonnée Lake.

(7) Cliffs and scree

Actively forming scree and colluvium below cliffs of volcanic and sedimentary strata of the Fossil Bluff Formation (Jurassic–Cretaceous age) occur inland of the degraded moraines (Fig. 3a). Some angular boulders from this zone have fallen onto the moraines.

Structural glaciology of ice-shelf margin

Ice-shelf margin

The structural glaciology of the western margin of the ice-shelf, representing the distal reach of Bertram Glacier, was systematically mapped in zone (3) above. This area coincided with the multiple shore-parallel ridges (Fig. 7) and strong near-vertical coast-parallel foliation. Numerous ice ships up to 2 m high are superimposed on these ridges (Fig. 3c), the morphology of which is controlled by differential weathering of different ice facies in the foliation.

Structural sequence

Exposed ice at the margin of the ice shelf reveals several intersecting sets of structures. Based on cross-cutting relationships the following structures (using standard structural geological notation) in order of formation can be discerned.

Foliation (S1)

Comprising coarse bubbly and fine ice, this structure is found only as remnants in the form of layers that have been isoclinally and similarly folded, of metre-scale amplitude. The marked thickening of ice layers in the hinge-zone and attenuation of the limbs is indicative of strong compressive deformation. This structure is probably derived from the flow-stripes, inherited from Bertram Glacier, and their continuation into the ice shelf. Folding (F2) took place as the ice approached Alexander Island.

Foliation (S2)

This is the dominant structure observed in the ice-shelf margin, primarily comprising coarse bubbly ice and coarse clear ice, and aligned parallel to the ridges. (Fig. 7). Stereonets and eigenvalues indicate a strong near-vertical preferred orientation of this structure parallel to the coast (Fig. 7a). Locally, the dip of this structure declines to c. 45° at the ice edge. In the moraine zone (5) above, disseminated mud, sand and gravel of mixed lithologies (including exotic clasts) are found within some coarse clear layers, and this ablates out to produce the debris cover. The continuity of layering resembles types of arcuate foliation found below icefalls in valley glaciers, which originate from the closure and healing of crevasses. This structure, containing continuous layers, differs from the normal anastomosing layers found in longitudinal foliation typical of valley glaciers, where single layers can rarely be followed for more than a metre (Hambrey & Lawson 2000).

Sugden & Clapperton (1981) analysed the oxygen isotopic signature of these ice facies. They found that the coarse bubbly ice facies (their ‘white bubbly ice’) had a value of δ18O of −18.12‰, whereas the coarse clear ice with debris had δ18O values ranging from −14.93 to −9.88‰. The coarse bubbly ice is interpreted as glacier ice derived from firnification processes, and is supported by the lighter isotopic values of Sugden & Clapperton (1981). The coarse clear ice with heavier isotopic values is interpreted as frozen water-ice from transposed water-filled crevasses inherited from the heavily crevassed Bertram Glacier.

Strong compression as the ice impinges on Alexander Island results in pure shear and substantial modification of the former water-filled crevasses and inter-crevasse blocks of coarse bubbly ice. There is little evidence of simple shear as the ice approaches this margin. Plausible modes of debris entrainment are reactivation of crevasses as shear zones and folding of basal ice before Bertram Glacier enters the ice shelf.

Thrusts (S3)

No evidence of thrusting was found in the sectors mapped, although 3 km south of Moutonnée Valley, Sugden & Clapperton (1981) recorded clear evidence of thrusting, notably displacements of several metres in the walls of an abandoned meltwater tunnel.

Fractures (S4)

Cracks in the ice surface have directionally variable orientations, but stereographic projections and eigenvalues indicate they are strongly orthogonal to the ice margin (Fig. 7b). The cracks are sharply defined, but are commonly anastomosing or cross-cutting. A few show bubble planes, but there are no veins of clear ice as is typical of crevasse traces. Rarely, cracks are open to a few centimetres width. As noted above, strong compression occurs with the principal compressive strain-rate acting perpendicular to the Alexander Island coast, whereas the cracks indicate extension parallel to the coast.

Open irregular crack (S5)

A single crack up to a metre or so wide runs approximately parallel to the coast, located roughly at the boundary between clean ice and the ice-cored moraine. It also runs through lake ice at Moutonnée Lake. This crack shows vertical displacements of half-a-metre maximum, but these vary during the course of the day. This open crack cuts across all other structures and is interpreted as a tide crack.

Ice-shelf sedimentology

The principal lithofacies associated with the ice-cored moraine at the edge of George VI Ice Shelf (zone (5)) are clast-rich sandy diamicton and sandy gravel (muddy), which grade into each other (Figs 8 and 9). Other minor lithofacies are sandy gravel (two samples) and sand (two samples), associated with supraglacial stream courses within the moraine and in clean ice areas respectively. The diamicton and sandy gravel (muddy) lithofacies are of basal derivation, melting out from the dominant foliation. Despite basal melting of the ice shelf (Graham & Smith 2012), substantial Palmer Land debris forms part of these sediments. The moderately well-sorted sandy gravel is the product of debris flows derived from the above facies, but with fines winnowed out, or from more vigorous reworking by streams. The well-sorted sand has been transported by supraglacial streams, but is of aeolian derivation. The chief attributes of each lithofacies are presented in Figure 8, and representative sedimentological data in Figure 9.

Provenance of clasts

Thin-section examination of clasts collected from the actively forming ice-shelf moraines between Ablation and Moutonnée lakes clearly define either a Palmer Land or a local Alexander Island provenance. Arkose and rarer volcanilithic sandstone, derived from the Fossil Bluff Group, indicate an Alexander Island provenance. Some clasts contain distinctive chlorite-altered volcanic glass, a common Fossil Bluff Group characteristic (see Horne & Thomson 1972). The prehnite–pumpellyite-grade metamorphism shown by the sandstones is consistent with the metamorphic grade of the Fossil Bluff Group (Miller & Macdonald 2004). Plutonic rock clasts are tonalite and quartz diorite, with minor granite and diorite. They were derived from the Antarctic Peninsula batholith in northern Palmer Land. The plutonic rocks are distinguished from Palmer Land basement either by an absence or weak development of a tectonic fabric (foliation) or by minimal recrystallization. Clasts derived from Palmer Land basement consist of amphibolite, dioritic and tonalitic gneiss, and quartzose phyllite. They all show a strong textural foliation, including aligned biotite crystals and segregated bands dominated by different mineral proportions, and conspicuous marginal recrystallization of feldspar to quartzo-feldspathic mosaics; some also contain fine quartzo-feldspathic veins resembling mylonite. No outcrops of these lithologies occur on Alexander Island. The most distinctive basement clast lithology is a tonalite containing numerous large garnet crystals that is found only in Palmer Land in outcrops flanking Bertram Glacier. A Palmer Land source is thus preferred for all crystalline clasts, the proportion of which varies from 2 to 20% (Figs 9 and 10). Volcanic lithologies include mafic and intermediate lavas and hypabyssal intrusive rocks, and dacitic pyroclastic rocks. None is likely to have originated from Alexander Island as the volcanic outcrops are situated west of the main topographic divide, with the possible exception of a small contribution from mafic lavas interbedded with the Fossil Bluff Formation. It is more likely that most were derived from Palmer Land, either from dykes or lavas within the Antarctic Peninsula Volcanic Group (mafic–intermediate) or from the dacitic Ellsworth Land Volcanic Group.


Dynamics of George VI Ice Shelf inferred from structural glaciology

Most ice shelves have flow-parallel features, commonly referred to as flow-lines or flow-stripes, which are inherited from the inland ice that supplies them (e.g. Crabtree & Doake 1980; Fahnestock et al. 2000; Glasser & Scambos 2008; Glasser et al. 2009, 2011, 2015; Holt et al. 2013). Commonly, these features are visible even in areas of net accumulation. Where satellite imagery reveals exposed glacier ice and is further supplemented by ground observations, it has been demonstrated that these flow features are the surface manifestation of longitudinal foliation (Reynolds & Hambrey 1988; Hambrey 1991; Hambrey & Dowdeswell 1994; Glasser et al. in preparation). By analogy with valley glaciers with converging flow units, this longitudinal structure may be considered to be the product of folding of primary stratification; as flow converges into a distinct ice stream the ice becomes folded about flow-parallel axes, accompanied by attenuation of fold limbs and thickening of fold hinges as the ice undergoes simple shear (Hambrey & Glasser 2003b). Recrystallization under simple shear further leads to transposition of the original layers to the extent that the new longitudinal structure replaces the primary stratification. This folding mechanism also explains how basal debris can be entrained into higher levels in a glacier (Hambrey & Glasser 2003b).

George VI Ice Shelf differs from most ice shelves in being constrained; in this case within the long tectonic rift of George VI Sound (Crabtree et al. 1985), and in that extending flow with calving is evident only at the northern and southern extremities. In the central zone, where the fieldwork for this study was undertaken, the ice shelf is fed by Bertram Glacier, which from satellite imagery is characterized not only by flow-stripes but also by complex, predominantly transverse crevassing and large irregular rifts. The projection of both flow-stripes and crevasses into the ice shelf is clearly visible, as sets of supraglacial lakes form parallel to the foliation (i.e. flow-stripes) and healed crevasses. Confirmation that these interpretations are correct is provided by exposed ice in the narrow zone where the Bertram Glacier flow unit impinges on Alexander Island. The longitudinal foliation (S1) in Bertram Glacier, inferred from flow-stripes and associated supraglacial lakes, travels across the ice shelf rather than turning north towards the calving margin. However, it ceases to become visible in the imagery close to Alexander Island. This pattern of foliation transfer across the ice shelf is also evident where other ice streams flow into the ice shelf. Indeed, some this foliation is folded, indicating that the relationship of parallelism between flow direction and flow-stripes breaks down. On the ground, in the vicinity of Ablation Lake, this structure has been deformed into tight similar or isoclinal folds, with axes parallel to the Alexander Island margin.

This first foliation (S1), however, is largely overprinted by the crevasse-related features that formed near the lower reaches of Bertram Glacier and give rise to a new foliation (S2) perpendicular to the first one. This new foliation is the product of pure shear, arising from compressive flow as crevasses are healed and their traces are transposed as they cross the ice shelf. Any basal debris entrained within S1 would be transposed into S2. Satellite imagery confirms that many transverse crevasses in lower Bertram Glacier are water-filled, and, because of the resulting uneven topography, supraglacial lakes form parallel to this structure. By the time this structure reaches the Alexander Island margin at Ablation Lake, it is exposed, with varying proportions of coarse clear ice and coarse bubbly ice, steeply dipping inwards or aligned vertically. The isotopic contrast between coarse bubbly and coarse clear ice (Sugden & Clapperton 1981) also supports a glacier ice and water ice origin respectively. With a lower albedo, the coarse clear ice preferentially melts faster, and therefore the high-relief topography at this margin is controlled by the crevasse trace-derived structure.

InSAR-derived velocities (Rignot et al. 2011) indicate that the ice in this central belt is under compression, with the maximum compressive stress acting perpendicular to the axis of the ice shelf. Velocities decline from >400 m a−1 at the lower end of Bertram Glacier close to the grounding zone, to <100 m a−1 in the vicinity of Ablation Lake (Fig. 2a).

However, the above structural interpretation does not apply everywhere on the Alexander Island margin. In a wide-ranging survey of the ice margin and adjacent geomorphology, Sugden & Clapperton (1981) demonstrated that the crevasse trace-related foliation (S2) was not always steeply dipping, but showed signs of distinct displacements, leading them to infer that this structure was a series of thrusts (S3), with the topography being explained as a zone of ‘pressure ridges’ rather than the product of differential ablation. Thus, there are at least two glaciotectonic processes operating as the ice impinges on Alexander Island, although thrusting may only be a localized mechanism.

Additional evidence of the deformation regime near Ablation Valley is the widespread formation or cracks orthogonal to the coast (S4). To compensate for the compression that produces foliation (S2), these cracks form perpendicular to it, and indicate extension parallel to the coast.

In summary, George VI Ice Shelf is supplied almost entirely from ice streams emanating from the interior of Palmer Land. Only in a few cases (Eros, Grotto, Jupiter/Haumea, Pluto and Mars glaciers) do Alexander Island’s own glaciers extend into the ice shelf (Reynolds & Hambrey 1988), and never by more than a few kilometres. These confluence zones are also associated with ridges parallel to the prevailing crevasse trace-related foliation.

Significance of clast provenance

The contrasting geological terranes (domains) on either side of the Cenozoic rift of George VI Sound are reflected in the clasts of the ice-shelf moraine. The farthest travelled clasts are intrusive and metamorphic lithologies from western Palmer Land (Vaughan & Storey 2000). The clear provenance route shown by analysis of the clasts indicates that they have been carried through Bertram Glacier, and reconstructing their potential flow paths inland to the last nunatak suggests a maximum transport distance of 100 km from the interior of the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet. Conversely, incorporation of far-travelled metasedimentary clasts from the Latady Group is unlikely, as the Group is restricted to southern and eastern Palmer Land on the east-facing side of the main Palmer Land topographical divide (Hunter & Cantrill 2006). The roundness and shape characteristics of the measured pebble-sized clasts indicate transport within the zone of traction at the base of the ice stream. However, structural processes, notably folding to produce the S1 foliation, would allow basal debris to reach a high englacial position, thereby becoming protected from basal melt in the ice shelf. Additionally, some large boulders (>1 m) are angular, and these may have been derived from supraglacial debris falling onto the accumulation area of Bertram Glacier, but soon becoming buried by snow and following an englacial path, until released by ablation close to Alexander Island.

The sedimentary, and possibly some mafic volcanic, clasts are locally derived Fossil Bluff Formation lithologies of Alexander Island. These lithologies are represented in the cliffs adjacent to the ice-shelf moraine, but their shape characteristics indicate that the sediment is primarily of basal derivation, although there are scattered clusters of single-lithology angular clasts that suggest a shattered bedrock origin with minimal subglacial modification. There is little evidence to suggest that the adjacent cliffs currently supply supraglacial material to the moraine.

Overall, the fact that the proportion of Palmer Land clasts within the ice-shelf moraine accounts for only 2–20% indicates that the bulk of the sediment is entrained where the ice shelf becomes grounded as it impinges on the Alexander Island shore. The exact process of entrainment could not be ascertained, however, but tight folding is suspected in this zone of compression.

Relationship between ice-shelf structure and moraine morphology

The ice-shelf moraine comprises a series of irregular ridges of debris forming a thin veneer over ice. The source of this debris is disseminated mud, sand and gravel in the coarse clear layers in foliation (S2). The absence of debris-rich ice suggests that many tens of metres of ice need to have melted out to produce the amount of sediment on the surface, which is typically a metre or more in thickness. The debris melts out from near-vertical foliation, and thus is unable to maintain the form of the original structure. It forms unstable ridges of sediment, which rapidly collapse and then undergo debris flowage during the melt-season. There is no evidence of the thrust-faulting mechanism advocated by Sugden & Clapperton (1981) in the production of these moraines. Moraine morphology reflects the internal structure composition of the ice shelf (foliation S2) only to the extent of providing the source of the debris.

The character of the ice-shelf moraines reported in this study therefore contrasts with that of ice-shelf moraines around the McMurdo Ice Shelf (Ross Sea, Antarctica). The McMurdo moraines originate by accretion of older subglacial sediment on the sea floor as a result of basal freeze-on of marine waters, which is then released as gently inclined sheets on and adjacent to land (Glasser et al. 2006). However, these sheets of sediment also rapidly degrade, and the resulting moraines ultimately show few signs of these processes. Furthermore, both the George VI and McMurdo ice-shelf moraines are different from those produced by terrestrial glaciers, which are the product of a variety of processes, such as thrusting (e.g. Lønne & Lauritsen 1996; Hambrey et al. 1997, 1999; Bennett 2001), delivery of debris to an active margin (e.g. Lukas 2005; Bennett & Glasser 2009; Benn & Evans 2010) or ice stagnation (Evans 2003). Of these, the closest terrestrial analogue for the George VI ice-shelf moraines is where ‘controlled moraines’ are formed, such as in the High Arctic. Evans (2009) described such moraines as forming in linear fashion from internal debris layers to produce hummocky moraine.

Preservation potential of ice-shelf moraines

The Ablation Lake area of Alexander Island is an area of net ablation, but the contemporary ice-shelf moraines show little sign that the ice-shelf surface is lowering. The low debris concentrations in S2 foliation suggest that accretion of debris is slow, but no time-series data are available to quantify the rate. The moraine debris is thin and subject to levelling by debris-flowage, so the resulting landforms are likely to be subdued features. This is confirmed by the presence of ‘old’ higher-level ice-shelf moraines, which are represented by smooth benches and metre-scale ridges. Similarly, moraines associated with the southern McMurdo Ice Shelf are ice-dominated, and are also likely to produce subdued bench-like features. This paper provides a detailed description of an ice-shelf moraine for the first time, and this can be used as a basis for locating such features in the geological record. Such features have already been identified in the Canadian Arctic (England et al. 1978, 2009; Hodgson & Vincent 1984) and northern Norway (Evans et al. 2002), but there is no reason to suppose that they are not more widespread. The key identifiers are near-horizontal benches underlain by poorly sorted sediment, together with a scatter of local and far-travelled ice-transported boulders on the surface.

Conceptual model of ice-shelf moraine formation

By following the structures developed in Bertram Glacier in Palmer Land across the ice shelf, the dynamic regime and mode of debris entrainment can be summarized in a conceptual diagram (Fig. 11). Bertram Glacier incorporates igneous and metamorphic debris from Palmer Land.

Two mechanisms appear possible to allow debris from Palmer Land to travel right across the George VI ice shelf. First, to protect basal debris from melting out as it enters marine waters, basal freeze-on would have occurred in the past, despite the rapid sub-ice-shelf melting that is taking place today (Jenkins & Jacobs 2008; Graham & Smith, 2012). Freeze-on may have occurred where meltwater from the fast-flowing ice stream came into contact with the saline water at a slightly lower temperature. The validity of this process is confirmed by the recognition of at least one area of localized basal freezing, at Hobbs Pool in Palmer Land, 64 km to the south (Pedley et al. 1988).

Second, basal debris could have been folded into a high englacial position in Bertram Glacier, and therefore remained out of reach of basal melting processes in the ice shelf. Recumbent folding at the base of a glacier (Hudleston 1976) and upright folding with flow-parallel axes (Hambrey et al. 1999) are common processes for elevating basal debris in polythermal ice masses. Given the relationships between the two foliations, it seems that the second process is the most plausible for delivering Palmer Land debris to Alexander Island: basal debris was folded within stratified ice in a grounded zone of flow convergence, becoming aligned parallel to S1 and then transposed into the plane of foliation S2 as the ice became compressed against Alexander Island. A third possible alternative mechanism, whereby a grounded Bertram Glacier formerly extended across George VI Sound, is discounted because a central submarine bedrock ridge would have diverted ice to the north or south.


This investigation provides insights concerning the dynamics and structural evolution of an ice shelf strongly constrained by topography. Analyses of ice dynamics then inform how debris is entrained and deposited to form an ice-shelf moraine. The key conclusions are as follows.

(1) George VI Ice Shelf is nourished primarily by large ice streams emanating from the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet. Analysis of satellite radar altimetry data indicates that the ice shelf thins from east to west, and that the velocity also declines in this direction. This central part of the ice shelf is under strong compression in the flow direction.

(2) Linear structures within the ice shelf are crevasse traces and foliation inherited from Palmer Land outlet glaciers; these structures are defined by the distribution of supraglacial lakes.

(3) The dominant structure exposed at the ice surface adjacent to Alexander Island is a coast-parallel foliation (S2) derived from water-filled crevasses in lower Bertram Glacier. An earlier foliation (S1) is strongly folded, reflecting strong compression at this margin. Local thrusting (S3) was recorded beyond the field area (Sugden & Clapperton 1981). All these structures are intersected at right angles by closely spaced fractures (S4), few of which are open.

(4) A belt of moraine lies on the ice shelf closest to the shore. Varying in height and thickness, the moraine consists of basally derived debris, with up to 20% of clasts derived from Palmer Land. Given that the ice shelf experiences substantial basal melting, the initial entrainment process was probably by folding of the basal layer into a high englacial position, which can occur where ice-flow in wide accumulation zones becomes more constrained.

(5) The morphology of the ice-shelf moraine reflects the alignment of the S2 foliation, but debris-flowage overprints this in many places. Ridges with the highest elevations reflect higher concentrations of debris in the ice, but their collapse with debris flowage into depressions results in topographic inversion. These ridges represent a close analogue of ‘controlled moraines’ (Evans 2009), as described for terrestrial Arctic glaciers.

(6) As indicated by older ice-shelf moraines, the preservation of these forms is subtle but distinctive. Their attributes are near-horizontal benches underlain by poorly sorted sediment, together with a scatter of erratics on the surface. The ridges collapse into low-relief benches on adjacent hillsides, underlain by basal till. As such, they may be more widespread than hitherto recognized in areas affected by Pleistocene ice sheets.

Acknowledgements and Funding

This paper is an outcome of the project ‘Glacial history of the NE Antarctic Peninsula Region over centennial to millennial timescales’, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, Antarctic Funding Initiative (Grant no. NE/F012896/1). We thank the British Antarctic Survey and its staff in Cambridge and at Rothera Station, Antarctica, for excellent logistical support. We acknowledge especially our field assistant, I. Hey, for organizing the field logistics and helping with the field campaign. Project design was by N.F.G., with contributions from M.J.H., B.J.D., J.L.S. and J.L.C. The fieldwork was undertaken by M.J.H. and B.J.D. in November–December 2012. T.O.H. undertook the satellite image analysis and J.L.S. described thin sections of clasts for provenance. The paper was largely written by M.J.H., with contributions from all authors. We thank D. Sugden and D. Evans for their helpful and perceptive comments on this paper.

Scientific editing by Philip Hughes