Why are fossils important when studying glaciers?

Asked by Edward

Hello Edward! Great question.

Fossils can be very useful in understanding past environmental change; this can be linked to past glacier fluctuations so that we can understand what the environment or climate was like when glaciers in the past grew larger or smaller.

For example, fossil pollen from plants can be found in cores from lake sediments or peat bogs. This can tell us about past vegetation, which is linked to regional climate. Chironomids, which are a kind of non-biting midge, can tell us about past temperatures. In the ocean, tiny animals like foraminifera can tell us about past ocean conditions.

When glaciers are in equilibrium with climate and are therefore maintaining their position, they can make landforms like moraines (a pile of rocky and muddy debris) at their terminus. Sometimes, organic material like plant material or shells may be picked up by the glacier and deposited in the moraine. We can can then use techniques like radiocarbon dating to understand the date when the moraine was formed.


I am a Senior Lecturer at Newcastle Univeristy, specialising in glaciology and glacial geology. I wrote and developed the AntarcticGlaciers.org website as part of an ongoing commitment to outreach, education and research impact. Read more about me at www.antarcticglaciers.org/bethan-davies.

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