Breaking the ice: How glacial cycle 22,000 years ago sculpted Britain’s landscape

Researchers have mapped how glaciers and glacial lakes once covered Britain and helped to sculpt the landscape 22,000 years ago.

A photograph of glaciers with snowy mountains in the background.

A kilometer thick ice sheet covered Britain and Ireland during the last glacial cycle. This ice sheet shaped the landscape and left behind landforms which allow us to piece together how this ice sheet, grew, flowed and disappeared.

The BRITICE map and GIS database of the glaciated landscape of the British Isles is the most complete overview of these glacial landforms to date, containing more than 170,000 different landforms from over 100 years of field investigation.

An online version of the map allows people to type in their postcode to see how their area was affected and ice age landforms that might be nearby.

The project, led by Professor Chris Clark in the Department of Geography and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, has seen researchers work for six years to model the build-up and retreat of the last British-Irish ice sheet.

The programme has involved more than 70 scientists from around the world who have visited 28 different islands, collected more than 15 tonnes of samples from 914 sites and steamed 7,942km on marine expeditions.

Dr Jeremy Ely, a Research Associate on the project, said: “The landform information tells us about how the last British-Irish ice sheet behaved. We can see how it dammed rivers, creating large glacial lakes which covered Manchester, Doncaster and Peterborough.

“Corridors of fast flowing ice, known as ice streams, flowed toward the east over Edinburgh and toward the west over Glasgow. Ice also covered the entirety of Ireland, flowing through the Irish Sea, where it coalesced with Welsh ice, causing it to flow southward toward the Isles of Scilly.”

A paper version of the map was sent to 4,500 secondary schools across the UK to be displayed in geography classrooms. The physical version of the map will assist pupils studying glacial landscapes and processes as part of their GCSE and A Level studies.

Dr Ely added: “The BRITICE map brings to life glacial geomorphology for GCSE and A Level students and shows them how these ice sheets have shaped the land around them. We hope that it will inspire the next generation of glaciologists.”

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