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Glacial-interglacial history of the Skaftafell region,

southeast Iceland, 0–5 Ma

Johann Helgason*
Ekra Geological Consulting, Thorsgata 24, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland
Robert A. Duncan*
College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331-5503, USA

Volcanic strata in the Skaftafell region, southeast Iceland, record a sequence of at least
16 glacial and interglacial intervals since 5 Ma. Two composite sections of 2 to 2.8 km
thickness have been constructed from multiple, overlapping, cliff profiles. The timing of
alternating sequences of subaerial lava flows, pillow basalts, and hyaloclastite deposits is
provided by magnetostratigraphic mapping and K-Ar radiometric dating. We find that
the frequency and intensity of glaciations increased significantly at ca. 2.6 Ma, and par-
ticularly since 0.8 Ma, amplifying topographic relief in this area from ,100 m to ;2 km.
These changes correlate with increases in global ice volume, ice-rafted debris, and devel-
opment from local to regional glacial conditions in the North Atlantic.

Keywords: subglacial volcanism, K-Ar age dating, paleomagnetism, relief amplification, iden-
tification of glacial and interglacial periods, lithology of subglacially erupted volcanic strata.

INTRODUCTION tive erosion. In this paper, we present cliff profiles that were separated by erosional
The Skaftafell region, located ;50 km east lithologic and paleomagnetic data and K-Ar hiatuses and abrupt changes in lithology over
of the neovolcanic eastern rift zone in south- radiometric ages for two composite strati- relatively short distances, and to provide a
east Iceland, is almost totally surrounded by graphic successions. Together these provide precise time scale for alternating glacial and
the Vatnajökull glacier, except in the south, complementary information on the growing interglacial successions. We constructed two
where the Skeiarársandur forms a gently slop- intensity of glaciations and increasing topo- composite stratigraphic successions, referred
ing coastal plain (inset, Fig. 1). Outlet glaciers graphic relief in southeast Iceland since 4.7 to as the Skaftafell and Hafrafell sections (Fig.
have carved the volcanic strata in this area Ma. 1). The Skaftafell section, composed of 35 for-
into a spectacular series of ridges and valleys mations, is 2.8 km thick, and the 1.9-km-thick
that have national park designation. Frequent FIELD AREA section from the Hafrafell is composed of 30
alternations of subaerially erupted lavas, sub- Lava formations in Skaftafell can typically formations. We drilled over 1000 core samples
glacially erupted volcanic strata, and glaciof- be traced for only a few hundred meters, as for paleomagnetic directions from a total of
luvial sedimentary rocks provide a lithologic opposed to much larger distances (up to 60 248 volcanic units. To obtain the freshest ma-
basis for tracing the glacial and interglacial km) for the older Tertiary strata of eastern Ice- terial for K-Ar dating, we collected block
history of southeast Iceland and climate vari- land. Erosional unconformities are common, samples from the massive, jointed interiors of
ability in the North Atlantic region over the and in the lower part of the region, stratigraph- lava flows. We examined samples in thin sec-
past 5 m.y. ic markers are rare. We adopted the basic field tion to select 23 of the best-crystallized and
Iceland owes its construction to the coin- classification for rocks in Iceland (Walker, least-altered material for age determinations.
cidence of a mantle hotspot with the Mid-At- 1963), in which rock strata are divided into Additional selection criteria were stratigraphic
lantic spreading ridge. Crustal sections that formations on the basis of lava cooling units; position, K content, and loss-on-ignition
form in rift zones from fissure eruptions and certain intercalated units of sedimentary ori- measurements.1
central volcanoes subside as they move later- gin, because of their climatic importance, are
ally and are normally deeply buried by later described as independent formations. The sub- RESULTS
volcanism (Palmason, 1980, 1986; Helgason, aerially erupted basalt lavas, as well as the Brunhes-age glacial erosion and subglacial
1984, 1985). Older crustal sections are then subglacially formed volcanic cooling units volcanism in the Skaftafell region account for
exposed in eastern and western Iceland were divided (on the basis of composition) deep incisions of valleys as well as accumu-
through isostatic uplift in response to removal into (1) coarse-grained olivine tholeiites, (2) lation of subglacially formed strata that have
of overlying volcanic material by erosion. By fine-grained aphyric tholeiites, (3) plagioclase been added intermittently to the valley walls
comparison, the strata exposed in Skaftafell, porphyritic units, and (4) thicker, fine-grained, at various levels. Underneath these discontin-
located outside the axial rift but nearly directly aphyric basaltic andesites. The subglacial stra- uous young strata is an older and more con-
above the hotspot, have subsided slightly. ta were further divided into units on the basis tinuous stratigraphic succession made up of
Therefore, the Skaftafell strata provide a near- of lithologic characteristics that graded up-
ly continuous history of the competing pro- ward from lobes, pillows, pillow breccia, hy- 1GSA Data Repository item 200120, Data on pa-
cesses of constructive volcanism and destruc- aloclastite breccia, and primary hyaloclastite, leomagnetic properties, K-Ar age, and stratigraphic
formations, is available on request from Documents
to reworked hyaloclastite. Secretary, GSA, P.O. Box 9140, Boulder, CO
*E-mail: Helgason—; Dun- We used compositional and paleomagnetic 80301-9140,, or www.
can— data and K-Ar radiometric ages to correlate 70

q 2001 Geological Society of America. For permission to copy, contact Copyright Clearance Center at or (978) 750-8400.
Geology; February 2001; v. 29; no. 2; p. 179–182; 2 figures; Data Repository item 200120. 179
Figure 1. Skaftafell and Haf-
rafell volcano-stratigraphic
successions were compiled
from rock compositions,
lithologic characteristics,
magnetic polarities, and K-
Ar age determinations from
71 individual profiles. Inset
shows location of Skaftafell
study area.

subaerial lavas and subglacial volcanic strata from the Skaftafell region are somewhat more most units for shallow burial (chabazite to me-
and sedimentary rocks, dating back into the alkalic than the average Iceland axial-rift tho- solite zeolite zones), the ages determined here
Tertiary. The lithologic diversity in the region leiitic basalt (Prestvik, 1985), and higher K appear to provide reliable estimates of the
provides a high degree of stratigraphic reso- contents have produced relatively high pro- time of crystallization—a conclusion reached
lution despite erosional hiatuses of varying portions of radiogenic 40Ar and precise ages for much older, but carefully selected samples
intensity. (2%–5% uncertainty for samples older than 1 from zeolite-grade Icelandic lava flows (Mc-
We present paleomagnetic correlations and Ma). For low-K or very young samples, ana- Dougall et al., 1976).
K-Ar age determinations from the two volca- lytical uncertainties are larger. Concentrations
nic sections in Figure 1. In general, measured of 36Ar in all samples were low, however, in- DISCUSSION
ages conform with stratigraphic position, and dicating that addition of atmospheric Ar dur- Recognition of Glacial and Interglacial
closely spaced samples produced concordant ing alteration has not been a significant prob- Conditions
ages. Abrupt age steps usually confirm ero- lem in the samples selected for dating. The stratigraphic formations (Fig. 1) are
sional hiatuses recognized in the field. Rocks Although there is evidence from the lower- identifiable as either glacial or interglacial in-

180 GEOLOGY, February 2001

tervals. A glacial interval is defined as a pe- (since 0.8 Ma). This finding suggests that lo-
riod when the region was covered with thick cal glaciers, comparable to the present glaciers
ice under which volcanism built up discontin- in Iceland, may not have survived through in-
uous pillow-basalt ridges. Thus, subaqueously terglacial intervals until Brunhes time. We
formed volcanic rocks, composed mainly of link the growing local topographic relief to in-
pillow basalt, hyaloclastic sedimentary rocks, tensification of glaciations (i.e., increasing ice
and breccias, are the main indicators of glacial thickness) over the past 5 m.y. as follows.
intervals. By contrast, interglacial intervals Preglacial Period (Before 4 Ma, ,10 m
are periods in which more continuous, sub- Local Relief). No evidence for bedrock ero-
aerial lava flows and thin volcaniclastic sedi- sion is observed in the lowest sedimentary ho-
mentary beds alone make up the volcanic sec- rizon in Skaftafell (stage I-1), dated at ca. 4.6
tion. The two composite sections extend over Ma. Erosion associated with the oldest glacial
a lateral distance of 20 km in a direction horizon (G-1), dated both in Skaftafell and
roughly perpendicular to strike and are cor- Hafrafell at ca. 4 Ma, is expressed by striated
relatable for the period of ca. 4 to 0.8 Ma. surfaces on the underlying lava flow. During
Our correlations suggest that three glacial this stage, lavas accumulated with rare sedi-
intervals in Hafrafell (G7, G8, and G9) are not mentary interbeds, and we see no example of
seen in Skaftafell. Likewise, five glacial inter- lavas thinning out because of erosion.
vals in Skaftafell (G3, G4, G5, G10, and G11) Early Landscape-Forming Period (4 to 3
are not found in Hafrafell. However, eight gla- Ma, 100 m Local Relief). In the 3.2 to 3.5
cial intervals occur in both sections. Thus, 16 Ma part of the Hafrafell section, for example,
intervals are recorded in one or both sections. we observe, in cliff profiles only 500 m apart,
An additional interval in Skaftafell is possibly that a 40-m-thick formation of interglacial la-
of glacial origin—i.e., G0, at the base of the vas has been removed by erosion from the first
section between units VG2 and VG1, dated at but not the second and a 90-m-thick lava for-
4.6 to 4.7 Ma. Strata representing the interval mation is present in the second but not the
of 3 to 2.4 Ma are missing, presumably first. There is evidence in some outcrops for
through erosion, from the Hafrafell section. In minor subglacial volcanic activity.
Skaftafell this interval includes glacial inter- Main Landscape-Forming Period (3 to
vals G3 to G5. Although the same number of 0.8 Ma, 400 to 600 m Local Relief). The old-
glacial intervals occurs in both of the com- est subglacial volcanic ridge of significant
posite sections for certain periods, the exact positive relief (200 m) found in the area is
correlation between individual glacial inter- dated at 2.8 Ma (G3), but younger ridges from
vals has so far not been completed. If one or this period are up to 400 m in height. Such
more of these intervals occurred in only one topographic highs have probably led to chan-
of these sections, then the total number of in- neling of ice since ca. 3 Ma and thus to deep-
tervals recorded would be increased. ening of the valleys through glacial erosion of
An important advance of this study is direct the underlying lava flows. An example of this
radiometric dating of subglacial strata, in ad- Figure 2. Local topographic relief at Skafta- is in Jokulfell (5 km west of Skaftafell) where
dition to subaerial lava flows that bracket gla- fell has been amplified since 5 Ma as sub-
a 140 m thickness of volcanic section has been
glacially erupted ridges and deepening val-
cial intervals. Examples are glacial intervals leys developed under thickening ice. removed. From stratigraphic relationships, it
G3 at 2.82 (60.04) Ma and G5 at 2.52 is clear that this erosion took place prior to
(60.10) Ma. The more numerous age deter- 2.5 Ma but after 3.35 Ma. The combination of
conclude that local topographic relief was less
minations of subaerial lavas in this study pro- positive relief produced by subglacially
than ;100 m until 3 Ma, was probably less
vide tighter limits on the timing of interglacial
than 600 m during the period from 3 until 0.8 formed volcanic ridges (up to ;400 m) and
periods. With increasing stratigraphic height, Ma, but is now up to 2000 m. negative relief caused by deepening valleys
individual formations are more limited in lat- Accumulation of snow from year to year to (100 to 200 m) led to a total local relief of as
eral extent, and greater variability exists in form glaciers depends on many factors, but much as 600 m during this period.
thickness between time horizons, determined most important are regional temperature, pre- Present Period (Since 0.8 Ma, 2000 m Re-
from paleomagnetic boundaries and radiomet- cipitation, and local elevation. It is unlikely lief). At some point, the main ice flow from the
ric ages. that the low local relief in the Skaftafell area highland ice sheet eroded deep and wide val-
prior to ca. 0.8 Ma could have sustained gla- leys that could no longer be refilled by volcanic
Growth of Local Topographic Relief ciers through interglacial intervals such as the activity during interglacial stages. These val-
The regional topography of Iceland is a present, given that local glaciers today survive leys thus became permanent channels for ice
broad shield, rising from sea level to ;700 m only at elevations above ;1000 m. The recent flow during successive glacial intervals. They
along the central rift axis. Maximum elevation and drastic relief changes in Skaftafell have became progressively deeper and wider, as in-
is displaced to the southeast, in the vicinity of thus elevated the region to an altitude where dicated by a cap of Brunhes-age volcanic strata
the hotspot. From examination of the volcanic temperature and precipitation favor glacier extending sporadically from valley floors to
record preserved in the Skaftafell area, we ob- formation. ridge crests of the Skaftafell region. Hence, the
serve that local topographic relief has been su- There remains some uncertainty as to when record of glacial and interglacial intervals is far
perimposed on the regional pattern largely as the deep valleys in the region formed. We see less complete than for earlier times. Precise dat-
a result of glacial conditions developing over no evidence for valleys exceeding 1 km depth ing of the onset of this period is not possible
the past 5 m.y. As illustrated in Figure 2, we in the Skaftafell region until quite recently with the present data, but it cannot be older

GEOLOGY, February 2001 181

than about 1 Ma. It is most likely that there Skaftafell in a Regional and Global Eiriksson, J., Gudmundsson, A.I., Kristjansson, L.,
Context and Gunnarsson, K., 1990, Palaeomagnetism
was a progressive increase in relief throughout
of Pliocene-Pleistocene sediments and lava
the Brunhes chron. The present difference in Eiriksson et al. (1990), Eiriksson and Geirs- flows on Tjornes and Flatey, North Iceland:
height from the top of the volcanic section to dottir (1991), and Geirsdottir and Eiriksson Boreas, v. 19, p. 39–55.
the valley floor in Skaftafell and Hafrafell is (1994) have investigated the temporal and re- Geirsdottir, A., and Eiriksson, J., 1994, Growth of
1800 m and 1200 m, respectively. The corre- gional distribution of evidence for glaciations an intermittent ice sheet in Iceland during the
late Pliocene and early Pleistocene: Quater-
sponding relief for the Öræfajökull area, 15 km in Iceland back to ca. 9 Ma. They concluded nary Research, v. 42, p. 115–130.
to the east and the highest elevation in Iceland, that well over 20 glacial intervals have oc- Helgason, J., 1984, Frequent shifts of the volcanic
is at least 2000 m. curred in this period. Because these events have zone in Iceland: Geology, v. 12, p. 212–216.
been dated by interpolation between magnetic Helgason, J., 1985, Shifts of the plate boundary in
polarity boundaries only, their timing is uncer- Iceland: Some aspects of Tertiary volcanism:
Skaftafell in Relation to the Ice Sheet and Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 90,
Volcanic Centers tain, as is the correlation between studied sec- p. 10,084–10,092.
In Borgarfjordur of western Iceland, Mc- tions and the significance of possible erosional Jansen, E., and Skoholm, J., 1991, Reconstruction
hiatuses. Hence, an increase in glacial activity of glaciation over the past 6 Myr from ice-
Dougall et al. (1977) studied volcanic strata borne deposits in the Norwegian Sea: Nature,
of similar age to that of the Skaftafell sections, since ca. 3 Ma is apparent, but quantification
v. 349, p. 600–603.
and observed a complete magnetic polarity re- of discrete events (such as timing and distri- Jansen, E., Skoholm, J., Bleil, U., and Erichsen, A.,
cord for this period (i.e., no major erosional bution) was not possible from their data. Geirs- 1990, Neogene and Pleistocene glaciations in
hiatuses). They did not, however, find subgla- dottir and Eiriksson (1994) proposed that the the Northern Hemisphere and late Miocene-
Skaftafell area has been covered with ice since Pliocene global ice volume fluctuations: Evi-
cially formed volcanic material comparable to dence from the Norwegian Sea, in Bleil, U.,
late Miocene time, but our evidence shows per-
the accumulations we observe in the Skaftafell and Thiede, J., eds., Geological history of the
manent ice only in Brunhes time. polar oceans: Arctic versus Antarctic: London,
region. They reported only seven glacial in-
Evidence for the onset and intensification of Kluwer, p. 677–705.
tervals and made no note of subglacially
Northern Hemisphere glaciations since Late Larsen, H.C., Saunders, A.D., Clift, P., Beget, J.,
formed volcanic ridges. The explanation for Wei, W., Spezzaferri, S., and Scientific and
Pliocene time has come from variations in
the lithologic differences between these re- Shipboard Party, Ocean Drilling Project Leg
d18O recorded in benthic foraminifers (e.g., 152, 1994, Seven million years of glaciation
gions appears to be that the Skaftafell area
Mix et al., 1995), which represent continental in Greenland: Science, v. 264, p. 952–955.
has, since 2.8 Ma, been more elevated and
ice-volume changes. The gradual increase to McDougall, I., Watkins, N.D., Walker, G.P.L., and
much closer to the center of the ice sheet that Kristjansson, L., 1976, Potassium-argon and pa-
more positive d18O after ca. 3.5 Ma reflects
formed during glacial intervals and thus has leomagnetic analysis of Icelandic lava flows:
slow global ice buildup, whereas the larger- Limits on the age of Anomaly 5: Journal of
developed a much greater local topographic
amplitude changes beginning ca. 1 Ma indi- Geophysical Research, v. 81, p. 1505–1512.
relief. Another consideration is that the strata
cate swings from glacial to interglacial con- McDougall, I., Saemundsson, K., Johannesson, H.,
in western Iceland probably subsided at a fast- Watkins, N.D., and Kristjansson, L., 1977, Ex-
ditions. Studies of ice-rafted debris found in
er rate within an accreting axial rift zone, so tension of the geomagnetic polarity time scale
deep-sea drilling cores from the North Atlan- to 6.5 m.y.: K-Ar dating, geological and pa-
that any subglacially formed volcanic ridges
tic (Jansen et al., 1990; Jansen and Skoholm, leomagnetic study of a 3,500-m lava succes-
might now be buried below sea level.
1991) provide additional evidence that inter- sion in western Iceland: Geological Society of
Our results conform with the initiation of America Bulletin, v. 88, p. 1–15.
mittent sea ice existed from ca. 6–7 Ma along
continental glacial conditions in other parts of Mix, A.C., Pisias, N.G., Rugh, W., Wilson, J., Mor-
the Norwegian and East Greenland margins
the Northern Hemisphere by 2.8 Ma, followed ey, A., and Hagelberg, T.K., 1995, Benthic
(Larsen et al., 1994). However, significant in- foraminifer stable isotope record from Site
by a second amplification at ca. 0.8 Ma (e.g.,
creases in ice-rafted debris at 2.6 Ma probably 849 (0–5 Ma): Local and global climate
Pisias and Moore, 1979; Clark et al., 1999). changes, in Pisias, N.G., et al., Proceedings of
indicate the onset of true continental glacia-
In response to periods of thick ice cover, local tions. The growth of topographic relief in the Ocean Drilling Project, Scientific Results,
topographic relief increased dramatically after Volume 138: College Station, Texas, Ocean
southeast Iceland beginning at 2.5 to 3 Ma and Drilling Program, p. 371–412.
0.8 Ma, from less than 600 m to at least 2000 intensification at about 0.8 Ma is consistent Palmason, G., 1980, A continuum model of crustal
m, but how fast this increase happened is still with this glacial history for the North Atlantic. generation in Iceland: Kinematic aspects:
unresolved. We suggest that up until ca. 2.8 Journal of Geophysics, v. 47, p. 7–18.
Ma the Iceland shield reached maximum ele- ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Palmason, G., 1986, Model of crustal formation in
vations of ;700 m, the current elevation of Helgason was supported by the Icelandic Science Iceland, and application to submarine mid-
Fund and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation ocean ridges, in Vogt, P.R., and Tucholke,
the rift axis nearest the hotspot, and glacier B.E., eds., The western Atlantic region: Boul-
(Germany). Duncan was supported by the National
ice did not survive through interglacial inter- der, Colorado, Geological Society of America,
Science Foundation (USA) and a travel grant from
vals except perhaps on local stratovolcanoes. the Oregon State University Research Foundation. Geology of North America, v. M, p. 87–97.
Cooler temperatures then allowed the buildup We thank Leo Kristjansson for generous use of his Pisias, N.G., and Moore, T.C., Jr., 1979, The evo-
paleomagnetic laboratory; the late Ragnar Stefans- lution of Pleistocene climate: A time series ap-
of sufficiently thick ice that subglacial volca- proach: Earth and Planetary Science Letters,
nic ridges began to form and increased the lo- son and his family at Skaftafell and later Freysnes
v. 52, p. 450–458.
for their invaluable assistance and hospitality; and
cal topographic relief enough to sustain small Prestvik, T., 1985, Petrology of Quaternary volcanic
John T. Andrews and Nicholas Eyles for construc-
glaciers through interglacial intervals. These rocks from Oraefi, southeast Iceland: Trond-
tive reviews.
heim, Norway, Geologisk Institutt, Norges
higher elevations survived in Skaftafell be- Tekniske Hojskole, Report 21, 81 p.
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182 GEOLOGY, February 2001