Imagining Britain's Lost Glaciers

The last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago but the mountain landforms of Britain and Ireland remain as evidence. They may be low by international standards and grazed these days by sheep and deer not bears and mammoths, yet they still bear the marks of the ice that carved them from the living rock. With a bit of imagination and some photo fiddling, it's possible to create an impression of how they must once have looked.

Bla Bheinn now... © This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Bla Bheinn now...
© This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

That cliff; that ridge; the hanging cwm above the void; that pile of stones by the river's bend, and the grassy flats in the valley bottom: all are in some way the product of the ice

...and how it might have looked 10,000 years ago © This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
...and how it might have looked 10,000 years ago
© This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Having walked, clambered, run and romped – or more recently stumbled – over them all my life, I've often imagined how they might have looked in their icy pomp. Wandering in the vast corries below Ben Nevis, driving up the A5 to Llyn Ogwen or setting off for upper Eskdale, England's finest valley, my mind's eye has often squinted through the rain to picture how our mountains once were. That cliff; that ridge; the hanging cwm above the void; that pile of stones by the river's bend, and the grassy flats in the valley bottom: all are in some way the product of the ice.

The Scafells today - bare rock and green grass © John Johnston, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
The Scafells today - bare rock and green grass
© John Johnston, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Crevasses would've added spice to the ascent from Eskdale © John Johnston, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Crevasses would've added spice to the ascent from Eskdale
© John Johnston, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I'm a teacher. Although the study of glaciation is retreating from the syllabus as fast as the glaciers themselves from the world's mountains, I never waste a chance to slip the subject into my Geography lessons. Fiddling around with Power Point one day, I tried to imagine Ben Nevis as it was. I was surprised how, with some subtle control of the mouse, I could make a fair stab at replicating couloirs, bergschrunds, crevasses – and of course the glaciers themselves as they tumbled out of Coire Leis and Coire na Ciste.

Ben Nevis in the 21st Century - some years no snow survives through summer © Dan Bailey
Ben Nevis in the 21st Century - some years no snow survives through summer
© Dan Bailey

So I took a photo of The Ben's north face and started applying my new-found skills. The kids loved it: "Sick!" is the best compliment a teacher can receive these days. And they may even have learned something from my efforts. I know I did.

Ben Nevis with added glaciers. Accessing routes might've been tricky, but just think of the conditions © Peter Roberts
Ben Nevis with added glaciers. Accessing routes might've been tricky, but just think of the conditions
© Peter Roberts

The next step was to find some usable and adaptable photos from around the UK and Ireland, and what you see here represents what I hope is a reasonable selection.

Of course this is only my guess at what our grand, old, now-naked but still-loved mountains may have looked like when only Cheddar Man was alive to see them - although he probably never did.

The eastern coves of Helvellyn are a classic post-glacial landscape © Dan Bailey
The eastern coves of Helvellyn are a classic post-glacial landscape
© Dan Bailey

And here's how they were made... © Peter Roberts
And here's how they were made...
© Peter Roberts

Ben Lui © John Armitstead CCL
Ben Lui
© John Armitstead CCL

Ben Lui with added ice © John Armitstead CCL
Ben Lui with added ice
© John Armitstead CCL

The mighty Liathach © Dan Bailey
The mighty Liathach
© Dan Bailey

Even mightier with added glaciers © Peter Roberts
Even mightier with added glaciers
© Peter Roberts

The Cairngorms, our nearly-arctic habitat © Mick Knapton Creative Commons license
The Cairngorms, our nearly-arctic habitat
© Mick Knapton Creative Commons license

...but they look a lot more arctic like this © Mick Knapton Creative Commons license
...but they look a lot more arctic like this
© Mick Knapton Creative Commons license

Tryfan and the Glyderau owe their shape to the ice age © Creative Commons CC0
Tryfan and the Glyderau owe their shape to the ice age
© Creative Commons CC0

So here they are with the ice age treatment © Creative Commons CC0
So here they are with the ice age treatment
© Creative Commons CC0

The northern Cuillin from Sligachan © This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
The northern Cuillin from Sligachan
© This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

What's the Gaelic for glacier? © This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
What's the Gaelic for glacier?
© This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Ireland's grandest mountains © Dan Bailey
Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Ireland's grandest mountains
© Dan Bailey

10,000 years ago they must have been gobsmacking © Peter Roberts
10,000 years ago they must have been gobsmacking
© Peter Roberts
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19 Feb, 2018

Wow - that is simply brilliant! They look surprisingly different...

19 Feb, 2018

These are great. Isn't it said that if Ben Nevis were a few tens of metres higher it would be glaciated? Can't remember where I heard that - could be nonsense, I guess!

19 Feb, 2018

Very nice and thought provoking too,

 

Chris

19 Feb, 2018

I fear the Alps are rapidly heading in the same direction. The loss of glaciers this century is very frightening. Some of the approaches to popular huts and peaks have changed almost beyond recognition. The Dix hut from the Pas de Chèvre between 2003 and last year was quite a shock and the little sculpture at the bottom of the ladders may not be such a joke!

 

19 Feb, 2018

On the plus side, if there hadn't been another huge climate change at some time way way back, we wouldn't have places like Yosemite.

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