Geologists tend to concoct unusual names for the things they study. “Dead-ice moraine” may sound odd to some of you. It’s a name for a kind of landform found in parts of North Dakota. Dead-ice moraine sounds odd enough, but can you believe it is found along with things called “doughnuts” and “puckered lips”? First of all, the word “moraine” is an 18th century French word. It was coined by Horace de Saussure to refer to “a heap of earth or stony debris” (de Saussure did not initially realize he was referring to glacial deposits). I’ll explain the “dead” part of dead-ice moraine later.
Dead-ice moraine is also referred to as “hummocky collapsed glacial topography” or “stagnation moraine.” It has irregular topography, formed as the last glaciers were melting at the end of the Ice Age, between about 12,000 and 9,000 years ago. The most extensive area of dead-ice moraine in North Dakota is found on the Missouri Coteau, which extends from the northwest corner to the south-central part of the state (coteau is French for “little hill”) Other extensive areas of dead-ice moraine are Turtle Mountain in north-central North Dakota and the Prairie Coteau in the southeast corner of the state near Lidgerwood. All three areas are uplands that stand above the nearby lower land. The landforms on Turtle Mountain are identical to those on the Missouri Coteau and Prairie Coteau, but Turtle Mountain has a woodland cover, the result of several inches more annual precipitation than the other areas.
North Dakota’s areas of dead-ice moraine generally make for poor farmland as they are rough and bouldery. They do, however, include a lot of excellent rangeland and thousands of depressions, which may contain lakes, ponds, and sloughs known as prairie potholes . The dead-ice moraine of the Missouri Coteau is known as the prairie-pothole region (the so-called North Dakota “duck factory”). The dead-ice moraine is essentially undrained, except locally. No rivers or streams flow for any appreciable distance in any of the three dead-ice regions – Turtle Mountain, the Missouri Coteau, or the Prairie Coteau. Dead-ice moraine formed when glaciers advanced against and over steep escarpments as they flowed onto the three upland areas. The land rises as much as 650 feet in little more than a mile along parts of the Missouri Escarpment, which marks the eastern and northeastern edge of the Missouri Coteau. Similar prominent escarpments border the Prairie Coteau and Turtle Mountain in North Dakota and Manitoba, especially the west side of Turtle Mountain near Carbury. When the glaciers advanced over these escarpments, the internal stress resulted in shearing in the ice. The shearing brought large amounts of rock and sediment from beneath the glacier into the ice and to its surface.
Eventually, as the Ice Age climate moderated, the glaciers became thinner and could no longer flow over higher land, although they kept flowing through lower areas. When the ice on the uplands became detached from still-flowing ice, the glaciers on the uplands stopped advancing and stagnated (or “died”). As the stagnant glacial ice melted, large amounts of sediment that had been dispersed through the ice gradually accumulated on top of the ice, which was several hundred feet thick. The thick covering of sediment on the stagnant glacier helped to insulate the underlying ice, helping to preserve it and prolonging the time it took to melt. As a result, it took several thousand years for the ice to melt. Geologists have determined that insulated, stagnant glacial ice continued to exist on the Turtle Mountain and Missouri Coteau uplands until about 9,000 years ago, nearly 3,000 years after actively moving glaciers had disappeared from North Dakota.
In places where the debris on top of the ice was thickest, the glacier was slowest to melt. If little or no insulating debris covered the glacial ice, melting was quicker and the ice had entirely melted away by 12,000 years ago.
As the stagnant ice on the uplands slowly melted, the glacier surface became more and more irregular. The soupy debris on top of the ice continually slumped and slid, flowing into lower areas, eventually shaping the hummocky, collapsed glacial topography – dead-ice moraine – found today over the uplands. As the stagnant glacial ice melted, and debris slid from higher to lower places, a variety of unusual features resulted. Long ridges formed when sediment slid into cracks in the ice. Such ridges may be straight or irregular, depending on the shape of the cracks. Often, cracks that formed in a rectilinear pattern when the glacial ice was disintegrating, became partly filled with debris that slid into them. Today, we see nearly straight, intersecting ridges, where the ice cracks had been. These ridges are called “disintegration ridges.” Mounds of material collected in holes and depressions in the ice. If the mounds were cored by ice, when the ice cores melted, the centers of the mounds collapsed, forming circular-shaped ridges – “doughnuts.” Some of the doughnuts are breached on two sides because the debris cover on a mound of ice slid off two sides of the mound. Some geologists have referred to such features as “puckered lips.” Wherever part of the covering of debris slid off an area of ice to a lower place, the newly exposed ice then melted more quickly transforming what had been a hill into a hole or depression. Such reversals of topography continued until all the ice had eventually melted.
The insulating blanket of debris on top of a stagnant glacier was so thick in places that the cold temperatures of the ice had little or no effect on the surface of the ground. Trees, grasses, and animals lived on the land surface overlying the stagnant glacial ice. As conditions gradually stabilized, water collected in lakes in depressions on the debris-covered glacial ice. Most of the water in the lakes was probably the result of local precipitation rather than from melting ice. Precipitation at the time was greater than it is today, probably 50 or 75 or more inches of rainfall a year. The mean annual temperature was only a few degrees cooler than it is today.
Surrounding the ponds and lakes, the debris on top of a stagnant glacier was forested by spruce, tamarack, birch, and poplar, as well as aquatic mosses and other vegetation, much like parts of northern Minnesota today. This stagnant-ice environment in North Dakota, 10,000 years ago, was in many ways similar to stagnant, sediment-covered glaciers in parts of Alaska today. Fish, clams, and other animals and plants thrived in the numerous lakes. Wooly mammoths, bear, caribou, wapiti, and other large game roamed the broad areas of forested, debris-covered ice.
During the years I was mapping North Dakota geology, I occasionally came across Ice Age fossils in North Dakota’s dead-ice moraine: caribou bones, mammoth teeth, fossil fish (mainly perch), and various kinds of snails, but paleontologists studying the Ice Age fauna and flora in detail have found many more kinds of Ice Age fossils than I noticed.
Prehistoric people probably lived on the insulated glaciers in North Dakota 10,000 years ago without realizing the ice lay only a few feet below. Or, if they did realize it, they likely accepted it as a normal situation (and I suppose it was normal for that time). Eventually, all the buried ice melted, and all the materials on top of the glacier were lowered to their present position, resulting in the hilly areas of dead-ice moraine we see today.
Glaciation was the main geologic influence on much of North Dakota’s landscape. The Ice Age, a time geologists also refer to as the Pleistocene Epoch, includes most of the past three million years of geologic time. Glaciers advanced over the northern plains several times during the Ice Age, reaching northern and eastern North Dakota. When it wasn’t glaciated, the state had a climate much like the one we enjoy today or possibly even milder at times. the Ice Age wasn’t one long “deep-freeze.”
During their studies of the geology of the state, geologists have found evidence for at least seven separate glaciations, but there may have been more. The most recent of these glaciations is known as the Wisconsinan (because deposits typical of that glaciation are widespread in Wisconsin). The Wisconsinan glaciation began about 100,000 years ago and ended about 11,000 years ago. Some geologists debate whether the Ice Age has really ended yet. After all, large areas of the earth’s surface are still covered by extensive glaciers (Greenland, Antarctica, etc.). It’s likely that we are currently enjoying a lull between major glaciations.
Even though North Dakota was glaciated many times during the Ice Age, it is the Wisconsinan glacial deposits, the most recent ones, that are most obvious to us. These are the ones that form the hills and valleys in eastern and northern North Dakota and they are the ones in which our prairie potholes and wetlands are developed. Most of our richest farmland is developed on the Wisconsinan glacial surface.
Early glaciers, which advanced into North Dakota before the Wisconsinan glacier, also had a profound effect on the state. The materials they deposited have been largely eroded away, and about all that remains of them are occasional boulders — “erratics.” I will discuss erratics elsewhere. It was an early glacier that diverted the course of the Little Missouri River eastward more than 640,000 years ago (possibly earlier). Before that time, the Little Missouri River flowed northward into Canada. In fact, all of North Dakota used to be drained by rivers that flowed into Canada. When it was diverted, the Little Missouri River began to carve the badlands we see today.
All of us who have traveled around North Dakota know that the landscape varies considerably from place to place. Southwestern North Dakota, with its badlands, buttes, and broad vistas is largely the result of hundreds of thousands of years of erosion. The landscape there is not glacial. It has been carved from layers of flat-lying sandstone and other materials.
The Missouri River marks an approximate boundary between the eroded landscape of southwestern North Dakota and the entirely different glacial landscape north and east of the river, where we see small hills – small at least compared to large buttes like Sentinel Butte and Bullion Butte found in southwestern North Dakota. Eastern North Dakota is characterized by thousands of potholes, poorly developed drainage in places, and remarkably fertile farmland.
When the glaciers advanced over the state, they picked up some of the materials over which they flowed. The glaciers contained a variety of kinds of soil and rock, which they eventually deposited as thick layers of sediment. The exposed surface of these sediments has been weathered for the past several thousand years (since the glaciers melted) and it forms the rich soils our farmers work today.
Over much of eastern North Dakota, the glacial sediments were laid down as an undulating plain (think of the Carrington, Finley or Kenmare areas, for example). In other places, a more hilly landscape resulted (think of Turtle Mountain or the Missouri Coteau — places like Belcourt, Hurdsfield, Max, Ryder and countless others). In still other places, water from the melting glacier became ponded, forming huge lakes. Today, most of these areas are flat. Examples of the flat topography may be seen in places like Fargo, Hillsboro, Grand Forks or Grafton. The old floor of Glacial Lake Agassiz (the Red River Valley) is the classic example of flat. Hundreds of smaller glacial lake plains are found in North Dakota too.
As the glaciers flowed over North Dakota, they tended to smooth off and wear down the hill tops and fill in the lower areas with sediment. The overall result is a fairly level landscape. The layers of glacial sediment underlying that landscape are extremely complex, containing buried river channels, blocks of sandstone and shale, old landscapes that were covered many times by fresh glacial sediments. Buried layers of gravel and sand, deposited by water flowing from the melting glacial ice, constitute aquifers. They contain some of our best sources of fresh water.
As the ice flowed, in some places it picked up large chunks of material and moved them short distances before setting them down again. A good example of this is at Devils Lake, where a large amount of material was picked up and moved southward a few miles. Today, Devils Lake lies in a broad lowland. South of the lake is a high range of hills, including Sully’s Hill. The hills consist of materials that were once in the lowland where Devils Lake is now.
In some places, huge floods of water from melting glaciers carved deep river channels. Countless small meltwater valleys, along with some large ones too, are found throughout eastern and northern North Dakota. The Sheyenne, Souris, and James River valleys are good examples of large meltwater valleys. Valley City, Minot, and Jamestown are nestled in meltwater valleys. The Missouri River valley is another example of a glacial river channel, but it had such a complicated history that I’ll plan on writing a special article about it.
How thick were the glaciers that covered North Dakota? Certainly, they were more than a thousand feet thick in the east and north, so thick that the Earth’s crust beneath the ice buckled and sagged downward, eventually rebounding when the ice melted.
Who or what lived in North Dakota during the Ice Age? Mastodons and wooly mammoths lived along the edge of the glacier. Elk, caribou, and horses were common. Horses became extinct in North Dakota and in North America at the end of the Ice Age, They survived, worldwide, because they had migrated to Asia via the land bridge between North America and Asia prior to then. During my field work over the years, I’ve found mastodon teeth, caribou bones and, in the Lake Agassiz deposits, fossil fish bones, mainly perch. It’s likely that early humans also lived here while the most recent glacier was still melting.
I’ve mainly been discussing North Dakota’s glacial landscape. Part of the state, the southwest quarter, was not glaciated, but the glaciers also left their mark there. The badlands along the Little Missouri River owe their existence to early glaciers that diverted the river eastward from its northerly route into Canada. This diversion triggered greatly increased erosion by the Little Missouri River, which resulted in the formation of badlands. Some places that were not glaciated are marked by polygons, formed when permafrost froze the land beyond the limit of the glaciers.