What does a glacial deposit really look like, and what is “normal” in Earth’s sedimentary record of glaciation?

Dan Le Heron – University of Vienna

When we look at modern, Alpine glacial landscapes, we are struck by the abundance of chaotic and poorly sorted material, bearing large boulders. This material is diamict: unsorted, boulder-bearing material that is fashioned into a variety of familiar glacial landforms called moraines, and sometimes streamlined structures (drumlins). Earth has experienced many glaciations, and has a rich record of diamictites stretching from about 2.2 Ga to the present day. However, even superficial investigation reveals that the records of many glacial periods such as the Cryogenian and Late Ordovician are greatly contrasting. Cryogenian rocks crop out spectacularly in places like South Australia, Namibia, Scotland and the western USA. They are associated with no convincing glacially striated pavements anywhere in the world. This is in spite of these being associated with a so-called “snowball Earth”. Spectacular, thick diamictites are interbedded with abundant dropstone-bearing strata and thus testify to a glacial influence, but not all diamictites are glacial and many record mass failures of slopes in a marine environment. By contrast, there is a high abundance of these features recording subglacial erosion in Late Ordovician and Late Carboniferous records. Huge networks of palaeo-ice streams can be mapped from satellite data, to allow detailed ice sheet reconstruction. The deposits of the Late Ordovician glaciation are predominantly sandstone, supercritical flow deposits are abundant, and most of the subglacial record records shearing of soft-sediment rather than “traditional” scratches on bedrock. Examples of these deposits are in Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. The Late Carboniferous record includes palaeo-fjord systems (e.g. in Namibia and Argentina) with polished bedrock surfaces that closely resemble Pleistocene fjord systems. Approaching the glacial record often requires “out of the box” thinking, because the present is not always the key to the past. This begs the question as to which glacial period, if any, is truly representative in terms of a glacial sedimentary record on Earth. So, do we really know what a glacial deposit looks like?