Equifinality and preservation potential of complex eskers

Rob D. Storrar, Iestyn Barr, Stephen Livingstone, Alastair Ruffell, David Evans

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26 Citations (Scopus)
88 Downloads (Pure)


Eskers are useful for reconstructing meltwater drainage systems of glaciers and ice sheets. However, our process understanding of eskers suffers from a disconnect between sporadic detailed morpho-sedimentary investigations of abundant large-scale ancient esker systems, and a small number of modern analogues where esker formation has been observed. This paper presents the results of detailed field and high-resolution remote sensing studies into two esker systems that have recently emerged at Hørbyebreen, Svalbard, and one at Breiðamerkurjökull, Iceland. Despite the different glaciological settings (polythermal valley glacier versus active temperate piedmont lobe), in all cases a distinctive planform morphology has developed, where ridges are orientated in two dominant directions corresponding to the direction of ice flow and the shape of the ice margin. These two orientations in combination form a cross-cutting and locally rectilinear pattern. One set of ridges at Hørbyebreen is a hybrid of eskers and geometric ridges formed during a surge and/or jökulhlaup event. The other sets of ridges are eskers formed time-transgressively at a retreating ice margin. The similar morphology of esker complexes formed in different ways on both glacier forelands implies equifinality, meaning that care should be taken when interpreting Quaternary esker patterns. The eskers at Hørbyebreen contain substantial ice cores with a high ice:sediment ratio, suggesting that they would be unlikely to survive after ice melt. The Breiðamerkurjökull eskers emerged from terrain characterised by buried ice which has melted out. Our observations lead us to conclude that eskers may reflect a wide range of processes at dynamic ice margins, including significant paraglacial adjustments. This work, as well as previous studies, confirm that constraints on esker morphology include: topographic setting (e.g. confined valley or broad plain); sediment and meltwater availability (including surges and jökulhlaups); position of formation (supraglacial, englacial or subglacial); and ice-marginal dynamics such as channel abandonment, the formation of outwash heads or the burial and/or exhumation of dead ice.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date14 Oct 2019
Publication statusEarly online date - 14 Oct 2019


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