OR/15/017 Summary

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Tappin, D R, Long, D, Carter, G D O. 2015. Shetland Islands Field Trip May 2014 - Summary of Results. British Geological Survey Internal Report, OR/15/017.

This report provides a record of a field excursion to the Shetland Islands in May 2014 to investigate sediments deposited from tsunamis generated from submarine landslides mainly located off the coast of Norway. The research was funded under a NERC Consortium Grant for a project entitled ‘Will climate change in the Arctic increase the landslide-tsunami risk to the UK?’ It was part of Work Block 2 (WB2): ‘What is the timing of tsunami deposits on the UK coastline, and how is it related to the age of major Arctic slides’?

The best known and most studied tsunami from the Norwegian submarine landslides is the Storegga event dated at 8 200BP. Sediments deposited from this tsunami are commonly found along the west coast of Norway, east coast of mainland Scotland, and also on the Shetland and Faeroe islands. However, there are other landslides off of Norway for which no associated tsunami has been identified, which poses the question as to whether these events did not generate a tsunami or whether the evidence for a tsunami has not yet been found.

Although evidence for seabed slumping off Norway was first discovered in the 1950’s (Holtedahl, 1955[1], 1971[2]) and the scale and morphology of a massive submarine landslide, subsequently termed Storegga, mapped in the 1970’s (Bugge, 1983[3]), it was not until 1985 that an associated tsunami was first proposed (Svendsen, 1985[4]). The first supporting sedimentary evidence of the tsunami was first identified on mainland Scotland in 1988 (Dawson et al., 1988[5]) then, subsequently, similar sediments were identified on the Shetland Islands (Smith, 1993a[6]). The Storegga Slide has been dated to 8 150BP (Haflidason et al., 2005[7]), however more recent research on the deposits on the Shetlands suggests that some may not all be from Storegga, because 14C age dating gives younger ages of ~5000 and 1500 cal yr BP (Bondevik et al., 2005[8]). A major challenge posed by the ages of these younger dates is that they are confined to the Shetlands; there is no indication of these younger tsunamis on mainland Scotland. If the dating is correct and the sediments are indeed from tsunamis, then the submarine landslides off Norway would be an unlikely source, so a local source seems most likely, but none has yet been identified. Alternatively a non-tsunami source for the sediments may explain their presence. [8] The objectives of WB2 therefore are to investigate the tsunami deposits on Shetland that post-date the Storegga Slide, to validate their ages and, if possible, identify possible source locations of the submarine landslides that generated the tsunamis. On Shetland research on tsunami sediments was mainly based on evidence from coastal exposures around Sullom Voe where tsunami sands are dated as coeval with Storegga. The younger sands are mainly preserved in lake cores at locations on Shetland Mainland (Bondevik et al., 2005[8]) where those of 5000 BP overlie sands of Storegga age at 8,200 years BP age. At coastal sites along Basta Voe on Yell and at a mainland site at Dury Voe very young age dates of ~1500 BP suggest an additional and very recent, late Holocene event (Bondevik et al., 2005[8]; Dawson et al, 2006[9]

A preliminary field excursion to the Shetlands carried out in 2013 discovered possible new tsunami deposits preserved in peat on central Yell at Whale Firth, Mid Yell Voe and Kirkabister. Subsequent 14C age dating of these deposits resulted in a variety of ages, many much younger than that of Storegga. The 14C method is known to be subject to major uncertainties because of contamination, for example initial age dating in the 1990’s at sites around Sullom Voe returned ages of around 5000 years BP, although these were subsequently rejected in favour of the earlier, 8200 BP Storegga event.

Thus, validating the ages of the deposits on Yell, prospectively from a number of deposits laid down successively at one site (thereby reducing the sole reliance on 14C dating) was critical in validating the presence of more than one tsunami event on Shetland. The objective of the 2014 field visit to the Shetlands, therefore, was to return to Yell and validate the preliminary results from 2013; revisiting the sites at Whale Firth, Mid Yell and Kirkabister and searching the coastlines of Unst, Fetlar, Yell and north Mainland for additional sites where tsunami sediments might be preserved. Just before the visit new 14C dates from Mid Yell from samples collected in 2013 confirmed the previous results from other locations that had given a wide range of ages; at Whale Firth a single date gave a ‘young’ age of ~5000 years BP, a range of ages with the oldest at 8,200 years BP were returned from Mid Yell Voe.

We first visited sites on north Mainland around Sullom Voe, as it was here that the first indications of the Storegga tsunami were identified on Shetland in 1992. The deposits are classic as they contain rip-up clasts characteristic of tsunami deposits elsewhere. We then visited the sites at Basta Voe, Whale Firth, Mid Yell and Kirkabister. We carried out reconnaissance surveys on Unst, Fetlar, Yell and north Mainland.

Preliminary results:

  1. The new evidence supports the presence of tsunami sediments on Yell at Mid Yell Voe and Whale Firth, but the age of these sediments requires further research to confirm previous dating and their possible sources,
  2. The youngest dated sediments (~1500 BP) at Vasta Voe are most likely from a tsunami, but their limited areal extent suggests a local source, as yet undetermined,
  3. The presence of three events at Mid Yell Voe based on surveys in 2013 was not confirmed,
  4. The similarity of the deposits on Mid Yell with those around Sullom Voe on Mainland are suggestive of a similar source,
  5. The wide range of the preliminary age dating at the Mid Yell sites (Whale Firth and Mid Yell Voe) is analogous to the early age dating of coastal deposits around Sullom Voe, suggesting the possibility of contamination of the peat material dated,
  6. Whereas the 5500BP event is identified in lake cores, no strongly supportive evidence for sands of this age were identified in the coastal sections,
  7. Of the proposed three tsunami events proposed for Shetland only one, Storegga, has a confirmed source,
  8. Further analysis of the peat stratigraphy at the coastal sites, reflects vegetation changes over the past ~8000 years related to climate change, and these could be used to provide a broader context for the 14C age dating that may resolve the present dating issues,
  9. Newly discovered sediments at Kirkabister require further research to determine their origin,
  10. The origin(s) of the laminated deposits at Whale Firth, Mid Yell and Vatsetter is/are uncertain, but they are probably not from a tsunami,
  11. No additional coastal exposures of peat with tsunami sands were located during the reconnaissance surveys on Mainland, Yell, Unst and Fetlar.

Postscript; Immediately after this report was finalised, age dating of peat sections at Whale Firth and Mid Yell Voe confirmed that the sands preserved in the woody peat here are of Storegga age, ~8200 cal yr BP.


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  2. HOLTEDAHL, H. 1971. Kontinentalsokkelen som en del av jorden. Forskningsnytt, Vol. 3/71, 12–17.
  3. BUGGE, T. 1983. Submarine slides on the Norwegian continental margin, with special emphasis on the Storegga area. IKU Report, Vol. 110, 1–152.
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  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 BONDEVIK, S, MANGERUD, J, DAWSON, S, DAWSON, A R, and LOHNE, Ø. 2005. Evidence for three North Sea tsunamis at the Shetland Islands between 8000 and 1500 years ago. Quaternary Science Reviews, Vol. 24, 1757–1775.
  9. DAWSON, A G, DAWSON, S, and BONDEVIK, S. 2006. A Late Holocene Tsunami at Basta Voe, Yell, Shetland Isles. Scottish Geographical Journal, Vol. 122, 100–108.