Glacier 'Discovered' in Scotland's Recent Past

At least one glacier existed in Scotland within the last 400 years, according to a boffin at the University of Dundee. That's some 11,000 years more recently than previously thought. Models suggest there'd have been others at the time too.

Looking down on Coire an Lochain, 90 kb
Looking down on Coire an Lochain
© Dan Bailey

It has long been understood that Britain's last glaciers melted around 11,500 years ago. However geographer Dr Martin Kirkbride has now established that a glacier was in place in the Cairngorms possibly as recently as the 18th century.

Using a technique called cosmogenic 10Be dating (ah, that, Ed.) Dr Kirkbride has shown that a small glacier in Cairngorm's Coire an Lochain piled up granite boulders to form moraine ridges within the last few centuries, most likely during the period of cool climate known as the Little Ice Age - a nippy time when winter fairs were often held on a frozen River Thames in London.

'Our laboratory dating indicates that the moraines were formed within the last couple of thousand years, which shows that a Scottish glacier existed more recently than we had previously thought,' said Dr Kirkbride.

'The climate of the last few millenia was at its most severe between 1650 and 1790. There are some anecdotal reports from that time of snow covering some of the mountain tops year-round. What we have now is the scientific evidence that there was indeed a glacier.'

Scientists have previously speculated that glaciers may have re-formed in the Highlands around the time of this Little Ice Age but hitherto hard evidence proved elusive.

Dr Kirkbride teamed up with Dr Jez Everest at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, and the Cosmogenic Isotope Analysis Facility at the Scottish Universities Environmental Reactor Centre in East Kilbride, to carry out the research.

Dr Everest, a fine example of nominative determinism at work, said: 

'This is exciting news, as for the first time we have shown that climatic conditions in Scotland allowed glaciation within the last half millennium, at a time when other glaciated areas, such as Scandinavia, Iceland and the Alps saw their glaciers grow to some of their largest sizes since the end of the last Ice Age. This has great importance when we start to reconstruct climate change in Scotland and the wider region over the last few centuries.'

The dating technique estimates the time since quartz crystals in granite boulders were exposed at the Earth's surface, based on measuring the concentration of beryllium-10 isotopes which form when the rock surface is bombarded by cosmic rays from deep space.

Late-season skier in Coire an Lochain, 158 kb
Late-season skier in Coire an Lochain
© Andy Moles, May 2009

Dr Kirkbride's discovery is backed up by a parallel study by Dr Stephan Harrison (University of Exeter) and Dr Anne Rowan (University of Aberystwyth). They have developed a numerical climate model to simulate Little Ice Age climate in the Cairngorms, allowing them to calculate how much cooler and snowier the winter weather must have been to cause glaciers to form.

The models show that small glaciers would have been created in the corries by a cooling of air temperatures by 1.5degreesC and precipitation increasing by ten per cent.

Dr Harrison said:

'Our findings show that the Cairngorm mountains were probably home to a number of small glaciers during the last few hundred years - around 11,000 years later than previous evidence has suggested. It may be that such glaciers also existed in the Scottish Highlands and elsewhere during other cold periods after the main ice sheets had disappeared.'

But in case anyone's getting too excited, he adds a note of realism:

'Present climate warming means there is little chance of a return of glacier ice to the Highlands for the foreseeable future.'

Both studies are published in the latest issue of the journal The Holocene.

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