EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

The pre-Pleistocene North American bed from coupled ice-climate-sediment physics and its strong influence on glacial cycle evolution

Matthew Drew1 and Lev Tarasov2
Matthew Drew and Lev Tarasov
  • 1St John's, Canada (
  • 2St John's, Canada (

The mid-Pleistocene Transition (MPT) from 41 kyr to 100 kyr glacial cycles was one of the largest changes in the Earth system over the past 2 million years. The transition happened in the absence of a relevant change in orbital forcing. As such, it presents a challenge for the Milankovitch theory of glacial cycles. A change from a low to high friction bed under the North American Ice Complex through the removal of pre-glacial regolith has been hypothesized to play a critical role in the transition. For testing, this hypothesis requires constraint on pre-glacial regolith cover and topography as well as mechanistic constraint on whether the appropriate amount of regolith can be removed from the required regions to enable MPT occurrence at the right time. To date, however, Pleistocene regolith removal has not been simulated for a realistic, 3D North American ice sheet fully resolving relevant basal processes. A further challenge is very limited constraints on pre-glacial bed elevation and sediment thickness.

Herein, we address these challenges with an appropriate computational model and ensemble-based analysis addressing parametric and initial mean sediment cover uncertainties. We use the 3D Glacial Systems Model that incorporates relevant glacial processes. Specifically, it includes: 3D thermomechanically coupled hybrid SIA/SSA ice physics, fully coupled sediment production and transport, subglacial linked-cavity and tunnel hydrology, isostatic adjustment from dynamic loading and erosion, and climate from a 2D non-linear energy balance model and glacial index. The sediment model includes quarrying and abrasion for sediment production with both englacial and subglacial transport. The coupled system is driven only by atmospheric CO2 and insolation.

We show that the ice, climate, and sediment processes encapsulated in this fully coupled glacial systems model enables capture of the evolution of the Pleistocene North American glacial system. Specifically and within observational uncertainty, our model captures: the shift from 41 to 100 kyr glacial cycles, early Pleistocene extent, LGM ice volume, deglacial ice extent, and the broad present-day sediment distribution. We also find that pre-glacial sediment thickness and topography have a strong influence on the strength and duration of early Pleistocene glaciations.

How to cite: Drew, M. and Tarasov, L.: The pre-Pleistocene North American bed from coupled ice-climate-sediment physics and its strong influence on glacial cycle evolution, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-10318,, 2023.