During the last glacial the ice sheet that subsumed most of Britain, Ireland and the North Sea attained its maximum extent by 27 ka BP and with an ice volume sufficient to raise global sea level by ca 2.5 m when it melted. We reconstruct the demise of this British-Irish Ice Sheet (BIIS) and present palaeo-glaciological maps of retreat stages between 27 and 15 ka BR The whole land area was investigated using remote sensing data and we present maps of moraines, meltwater channels, eskers, and drumlins and a methodology of how to interpret and bring them together. For the continental shelf, numerous large moraines were discovered recording an extensive pattern of retreat stretching from SW Ireland to the Shetland Isles. From an integration of this new mapping of glacial geomorphology (>26,000 landforms) with previously published evidence, compiled in the BRITICE database, we derive a pattern of retreat for the whole BIIS. We review and compile relevant dates (881 examples) that constrain the timing of retreat. All data are held within a Geographic Information System (GIS), and are deciphered to produce a best-estimate of the combined pattern and timing of retreat. Pattern information reveals an ice sheet mainly comprised of a shelf-parallel configuration from SW Ireland to NE Scotland but it spread far enough to the south to incorporate outlying ice domes over Wales, the Lake District and Kerry. Final disintegration was into a number of separate ice caps, rather than reduction as a single mass, and paradoxically, retreat was not always back to high ground. By 23 ka BP ice withdrew along its northern boundaries at the same time as the southern margins were expanding, including transient ice streaming down the Irish Sea and advances of lobes in the Cheshire Basin, Vale of York and east coast of England. Ice divides migrated south. By 19 ka the ice sheet was in crisis with widespread marine-based ice losses, particularly in the northern North Sea and the Irish Sea. Considerable dynamic-thinning occurred during this phase. Final collapse of all marine sectors occurred by 17 ka BP and with most margins beginning to back-step onshore. Disintegration of the North Sea 'ice bridge' between Britain and Norway remains loosely constrained in time but the possibility of catastrophic collapse of this sector is highlighted. The North Channel and Irish Sea ice streams had finally cleaved the ice sheet into separate Irish and Scottish ice sheets by 16 ka BP. Rates of ice loss were found to vary widely over space and time (e.g., 65-260 km(3) per year). The role of ice streams and calving losses of marine-based sectors are examined. Retreat rates of up to ca 150 ma(-1) were found for some ice stream margins. That large parts (2/3) of the BIIS were marine-based, drained by ice streams, and possibly with fringing ice shelves in places, makes it a useful analogue for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). This is especially so because the BIIS deglaciated in response to rising temperatures and a rising sea level (driven by melting of other ice masses) which are the current forcings that might cause collapse of the WAIS. Our reconstruction, when viewed from the opposite perspective, documents when fresh land became exposed for exploitation by plants, animals and Man, and records for how long such land has been available for soil and geochemical development and ecological succession.
2012. Vol. 44, 112-146 p.