Arctic Ocean

GeoSciences Column: When could humans last walk, on land, between Asia & America?

GeoSciences Column: When could humans last walk, on land, between Asia & America?

Though now submerged under 53 m of ocean waters, there once was a land bridge which connected North America with Asia, allowing the passage of species, including early humans, between the two continents. A new study, published in the EGU’s open access journal Climate of the Past, explores when the land bridge was last inundated, cutting off the link between the two landmasses.

The Bering Strait, a narrow passage of water, connects the Arctic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Located slightly south of the Arctic Circle, the shallow, navigable, 85 km wide waterway is all that separates the U.S.A and Russia. There is strong evidence to suggest that, not so long ago, it was possible to walk between the two*.

The Paleolithic people of the Americas. Evidence suggests big-animal hunters crossed the Bering Strait from Eurasia into North America over a land and ice bridge (Beringia). Image: The American Indian by Clark Wissler (1917). Distributed via Wikipedia.

In fact, though the subject of a heated, ongoing debate, this route is thought to be one of the ones taken by some of the very first human colonisers of the Americas, some 16, 500 years ago.

Finding out exactly when the Bering Strait last flooded is important, not only because it ends the last period when animals and humans could cross between North America and northeast Asia, but because an open strait affects the two oceans it connects. It plays a role in how waters move around in the Arctic Ocean, as well as how masses of water with different properties (oxygen and/or salt concentrations and temperatures, for example) arrange themselves. The implications are significant: currently, the heat transported to Arctic waters (from the Pacific) via the Bering Strait determines the extend of Arctic sea ice.

As a result, a closed strait has global climatic implications, which adds to the importance of knowing when the strait last flooded.

The new study uses geophysical data which allowed the team of authors to create a 3D image of the Herald Canyon (within the Bering Strait). They combined this map with data acquired from cylindrical sections of sediment drilled from the ocean floor to build a picture of how the environments in the region of the Bering Strait changed towards the end of the last glaciation (at the start of a time known as the Holocene, approximately 11,700 years ago, when the last ‘ice age’ ended).

At depths between 412 and 400 cm in the cores, the sediment experiences changes in physical and chemical properties which, the researchers argue, represent the time when Pacific water began to enter the Arctic Ocean via the Bearing strait. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of this transition at approximately 11, 000 years ago.

Above this transition in the core, the scientist identified high concentrations of biogenic silica (which comes from the skeletons of marine creatures such as diatoms – a type of algae – and sponges); a characteristic signature of Pacific waters. Elevated concentrations of a carbon isotope called delta carbon thirteen (δ 13Corg), are further evidence that marine waters were present at that time, as they indicate larger contributions from phytoplankton.

The sediments below the transition consist of sandy clayey silts, which the team interpret as deposited near to the shore with the input of terrestrial materials. Above the transition, the sediments become olive-grey in colour and are exclusively made up of silt. Combined with the evidence from the chemical data, the team argue, these sediments were deposited in an exclusively marine environment, likely influenced by Pacific waters.

Combining geophysical data with information gathered from sediment cores allowed the researchers to establish when the Bering Strait closed. This image is a 3-D view of the bathymetry of Herald Canyon and the chirp sonar profiles acquired along crossing transects. Locations of the coring sites are shown by black bars. Figure taken from M. Jakobsson et al. 2017.

The timing of the sudden flooding of the Bering Strait and the submergence of the land bridge which connected North America with northeast Asia, coincides with a period of time characterised by Meltwater pulse 1B, when sea levels were rising rapidly as a result of meltwater input to the oceans from the collapse of continental ice sheets at the end of the last glaciation.

The reestablishment of the Pacific-Arctic water connection, say the researchers, would have had a big impact on the circulation of water in the Arctic Ocean, sea ice, ecology and potentially the Earth’s climate during the early Holocene. Know that we are more certain about when the Bering Strait reflooded, scientist can work towards quantifying these impacts in more detail.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer


*Authors’s note: In fact, during the winter months, when sea ice covers the strait, it is still possible to cross from Russia to the U.S.A (and vice versa) on foot. Eight people have accomplished the feat throughout the 20th Century. Links to some recent attempts can be found at the end of this post.

References and resources:

Jakobsson, M., Pearce, C., Cronin, T. M., Backman, J., Anderson, L. G., Barrientos, N., Björk, G., Coxall, H., de Boer, A., Mayer, L. A., Mörth, C.-M., Nilsson, J., Rattray, J. E., Stranne, C., Semiletov, I., and O’Regan, M.: Post-glacial flooding of the Bering Land Bridge dated to 11 cal ka BP based on new geophysical and sediment records, Clim. Past, 13, 991-1005,, 2017.

Barton, C. M., Clark, G. A., Yesner, D. R., and Pearson, G. A.: The Settlement of the American Continents: A Multidisciplinay Approach to Human Biogeography, The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, 2004.

Goebel, T., Waters, M. R., and Rourke, D. H.: The Late Pleistocene Dispersal of Modern Humans in the Americas, Science, 319,1497–1502,, 2008

Epic explorer crossed frozen sea (BBC):

Korean team crossed Bering Strait (The Korean Herald):

Imaggeo on Mondays: Polar backbone (Arctic Ocean)

Imaggeo on Mondays: Polar backbone (Arctic Ocean)

This image was taken during the Arctic Ocean 2016(AO16) expedition that ventured to the central regions of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. It shows a pressure ridge, or ice ridge, as viewed from onboard the deck of the icebreaker Oden. It was quite striking that the ice ridge resembled an image of a spine – sea ice being a defining characteristic of the broader Arctic environment and backbone to global climate interactions.

An ice ridge is a wall of broken ice that forms when floating ice is deformed by a build up of pressure between adjacent ice floes. Sea ice can drift quite quickly, and is driven by wind and ocean currents. Ridges are typically thicker than the surrounding level sea ice, being built up by ice blocks of different sizes. The submerged portion of the ridge is referred to as the “keel”, and the part above the water surface is called the “sail”. Ridges can be categorized as “first year” or “multi-year” features, with weathering affecting the morphology.

In the Arctic, such ridges have been measured to in excess of 20 m in thickness including keel and sail. As someone who studies plate tectonics, these collisional boundaries between plates of ice reminded me of a downscaled mountain-building setting.

The AO16 expedition ran from August to September 2016 and involved the Swedish icebreaker Oden and the Canadian icebreaker the Louis S. St-Laurent. A wealth of geological, oceanographic, meteorological data was collected. This period appeared to have coincided with the second lowest extent of sea ice coverage on record (tied with 2007), with around 4.14 million square kilometers.

The geological evolution of the Arctic Ocean in the regions closest to the margins of northern Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Islands are some of the most poorly understood. This is largely a function of the oceanic gyre system, which causes the thickest sea ice to build up in these areas making physical access difficult. From a maritime engineering perspective, the ice ridges pose a challenge and risk to icebreaking operations and navigation. Ice ridges may determine the design load for marine and coastal structures such as platforms, ships, pipelines and bridges, and are important for both ice volume estimations and for the strength of pack ice.

By Grace Shephard, geophysicist from the Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the University of Oslo, Norway.

Geosciences Column: Just a drop in the ocean – river nutrients and Arctic plankton

The oceans are a big contributor to the global carbon cycle, with phytoplankton taking up carbon through photosynthesis and incorporating it into their shells. When these organisms die their shells sink and make a calcareous contribution to seafloor sediments. Of course, with the formation of limestone, this carbon is locked out of the atmosphere for long periods of geological time.

Until recently, the Arctic Ocean was not considered to be a big player in the ocean carbon pump. This was because phytoplankton here experience relatively low light levels and extensive ice cover limits carbon exchange with the atmosphere. However, the reduction in ice cover experienced in recent decades means that phytoplankton are being exposed to sunlight for much longer periods. This means that phytoplankton blooms are also occurring earlier in the year, with an increase in primary productivity. In fact, the Arctic Ocean is responsible for about 14% of the global uptake of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere! Take a look at all that chlorophyll:

Chlorophyll concentration in the Northern Hemisphere. (Credit: NASA)

Chlorophyll concentration in the Northern Hemisphere. (Credit: NASA)

Remote sensing plays a big part in finding out this information. Satellite images let us take a look at ocean colour – a measure of the ocean’s ‘greenness’ – the greener the ocean, the more chlorophyll is present in the surface water. If there’s more chlorophyll, then there will be more phytoplankton busily converting sunlight into energy and fixing atmospheric carbon in the process.

Coccolith bloom in the Skagerrak. The white calcareous shells of coccolithophores is responsible for the milky colour of this coastal water (Credit: NASA/MODIS/SeaWiFS)

Coccolith bloom in the Skagerrak. The white calcareous shells of coccolithophores is responsible for the milky colour of this coastal water (Credit: NASA/MODIS/SeaWiFS)

This increase in primary productivity means that the Arctic Ocean is fixing more carbon than before, but changes in light availability are not the only thing helping Arctic plankton fix more carbon…

Strong stratification of the water column (with fresher, less dense water on top and more saline, higher density water on the bottom) prevents nutrients from mixing into the photic zone throughout most of the year. But there’s another source of nutrients phytoplankton can make use of – these are transported into ocean basins via estuaries and give a big boost to productivity in the surface ocean. You can see this from space as coastal waters are greener (more phytoplankton-rich) than waters further offshore. The same is true in upwelling zones, where deep, nutrient-rich water is brought to the surface.

This is a false colour image of chlorophyll concentration. Dark blue regions are low nutrient, low chlorophyll environments and red regions indicate areas where algae have reached harmful levels – note that these areas hug the coastline, where nutrient input is greatest. (Credit: NASA)

This is a false colour image of chlorophyll concentration. Dark blue regions are low nutrient, low chlorophyll environments and red regions indicate areas where algae have reached harmful levels – note that these areas hug the coastline, where nutrient input is greatest. (Credit: NASA)

While the Arctic isn’t a major upwelling zone, 10% of the world’s freshwater flows into the Arctic basin, which makes up only 1% of the global ocean volume. This large freshwater flux has the potential to bring a large quantity of nutrients and stimulate phytoplankton growth, something that Vincent Le Fouest and his colleagues set out to explore. By taking nutrient measurements (nitrate, phosphorous and silicate, amongst others) for several rivers entering the Arctic basin they established a historical baseline of river fluxes into the Arctic Ocean. This can be used assess their impact on the biogeochemistry of shelf waters in the future.

A snapshot of some of the baseline data for rivers entering the Arctic Ocean (click for larger). (Credit: Le Fouest et al., 2013)

A snapshot of some of the baseline data for rivers entering the Arctic Ocean (click for larger). (Credit: Le Fouest et al., 2013)

Despite the potential that riverine nutrients have for stimulating phytoplankton growth in the Arctic Ocean, it is still nitrogen-limited. While the river flux has no effect on phytoplankton growth here, this may not always be the case, as the flux of riverine nitrate is ever-increasing as larger populations put more pressure on local water resources and increasing waste and agricultural runoff enters the river system.

Future trends in Arctic primary productivity are dependent on nutrient input into the photic zone and we can only quantify these changes with a baseline dataset such as this one.

The baseline data collected by Le Fouest and his team is published in Biogeosciences and you can access it free of charge here.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer


Le Fouest, V., Babin, M., and Tremblay, J.-É.: The fate of riverine nutrients on Arctic shelves, Biogeosciences, 10, 3661-3677, 2013.


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