Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)



First Advisor

Bierman, Paul


This work aims to study the behavior of the western margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet during a period of pronounced ice retreat roughly 10,000 years ago, after the end of the last glacial period. It explores the efficiency of subglacial erosion, the spatial dynamics of ice retreat, and the rates of ice retreat. To address these questions, I use the radionuclides 10Be and 26Al, which form in rocks due to the bombardment of cosmic rays, only after the rocks have been exposed from underneath retreating ice. These nuclides can be used as a geologic dating technique to explore exposure history. Before applying this dating technique to address geological questions, it was critical to first perform methodological development. My work in the University of Vermont‘s new Cosmogenic Nuclide Laboratory served to improve the precision and efficiency of the pre-existing laboratory methods. New methodological advances ensured that samples from Greenland, which contained only low concentrations of 10Be and 26Al, could be used to yield meaningful results about ice behavior. Cosmogenic nuclide dating was applied at two sites along the ice sheet margin in central-western Greenland. At both of these sites, I collected paired bedrock and boulder samples in a transect normal to and outside of the present-day ice sheet margin. Samples were collected from a variety of elevations at numerous locations along the transects, thus providing three-dimensional coverage of the field area. After isolating the mineral quartz from the rocks, and isolating the elements Be and Al from the quartz, isotopic analysis was performed using accelerator mass spectrometry to quantify the relative abundances of the radionuclides against their respective stable isotopes. The southern study site, Ilulissat, is located on the western coast of Greenland at a latitude of 69N. Much previous work has been conducted here due to the presence of one of the largest ice streams in the northern hemisphere, Jakobshavn Isbræ. My work in Ilulissat demonstrated that subglacial erosion rates were high during previous glacial periods, efficiently sculpting and eroding the landscape. Ice retreat across the land surface began around 10,300 years ago, and the ice sheet retreated behind its present-day margin about 7,600 years ago. Ice retreat occurred at a rate of about 100 meters per year. My work in this area suggests that retreat in the large ice stream set the pace and timing for retreat of the neighboring ice sheet margin. The northern site, Upernavik, is located on the western coast of Greenland at a latitude of 73N. Little research has been conducted here in the past. Unlike in Ilulissat, my work here shows that the ice sheet did not efficiently erode the landscape, especially at high elevations, during previous glacial periods. This is likely because the ice was thinner, and therefore had a colder base, than the ice in Ilulissat. My work suggests that ice cover was lost from this area very rapidly, likely at rates of about 170 meters per year, in a single episode around 11,300 years ago. Comparison between the two study sites reveals that ice characteristics can vary appreciably over relatively small distances.