Glaciers existed in Britain within the last few centuries

21 January 2014

Professor Neil Glasser
Professor Neil Glasser

Research by two glaciologists from Aberystwyth University along with scientists from the University of Exeter and Dundee University has shown that Britain was home to small glaciers within the last few centuries – around 11,000 years later than previously thought. 

Dr Ann Rowan and Professor Neil Glasser, who are based at the Centre of Glaciology in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, have now established that small glaciers almost certainly existed in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland as recently as the 18th century, whereas previously it had long been understood that Britain’s last glaciers melted some 11,000 years ago. 

Scientists had speculated that glaciers may have formed in the Highlands around the time of the Little Ice Age – a period of cooling between the 16th and 19th centuries – but hard evidence has proved elusive. 

Dr Rowan and Professor Glasser and colleagues from the University of Exeter and Plymouth University in the UK, the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and the Idaho National Laboratory in the USA used a numerical glaciological model to simulate Little Ice Age glaciers in the Cairngorm Mountains, allowing them to calculate how much cooler and snowier the weather must have been to cause these glaciers to form. 

This model shows that small glaciers would have formed in the corries – steep-sided hollows found in the Scottish mountains – by a cooling of air temperatures of 1.5°C and a slight increase in precipitation of ten per cent compared to today’s climate. This is consistent with conditions that existed during the Little Ice Age. 

“Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the climate in Britain allowed glaciers to form in the Scottish Mountains long after the last woolly mammoth was spotted” said Dr. Ann Rowan. “While the River Thames froze over and people held frost fairs in London, life in Scotland would have been difficult. 

These Little Ice Age glaciers in the Cairngorm Mountains suggest the sort of short-term variations in the regional climate that would have impacted on human lives and agriculture, possibly similar to the exceptionally stormy winter conditions currently affecting the UK.” 

According to Professor Glasser, “it is also possible that similar glaciers existed at the same time in the highest mountains of Wales and the English Lake District, and we are now looking for documentary evidence containing historical reports of these glaciers.”

This study and a companion paper are published in the latest issue of the journal The Holocene.

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Contacts

Professor Neil Glasser
Geography and Earth Sciences
01970 622 785 / nfg@aber.ac.uk

Dr Ann Rowan
Geography and Earth Sciences
01970 622786 / anr34@aber.ac.uk