Press release

Revealed: How Scotland’s glaciers shaped the nation

Published on 6 February 2020

Research from the University of Dundee has revealed the secret behind some of Scotland’s most dramatic scenery – climate.

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Research from the University of Dundee has revealed the secret behind some of Scotland’s most dramatic scenery – climate.

Geoscientists Dr Simon Cook and Dr Martin Kirkbride, from the University’s Geography and Environmental Science department, say that heavy precipitation and relatively warm temperatures played a greater role than previously thought in determining how glaciers have shaped iconic landscapes such as Glencoe and the Cairngorms.

In a paper published today in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Cook has developed a new global assessment of glacial erosion rates, which highlight the extent to which Scotland’s famous weather created its equally famous geography.

“Our research has shown for the first time that climate affects how quickly glaciers are able to erode,” said Dr Cook.

“One mystery is why some glaciers are only able to strip away a hair’s breadth of bedrock each year, whereas others cut down several centimetres per year, and produce huge amounts of sediment.

“For example, glaciers in Antarctica behave very differently to those in Alaska because of their location and the climate in which they exist. If you have more snow and rain on a glacier, the glacier will be more dynamic, flow more quickly, and hence be able to cut away at bedrock more quickly.

“Knowing what controls glacial erosion is important because it helps us manage human interests in glaciated environments, as modern hydropower schemes can become silted-up by the sediment spat out of glaciers into meltwater streams.”

The Dundee team’s findings have helped to shine new light on how Scotland’s stunning landscape may have been formed, with today’s peaks and glens likely to be the consequence of how local climatic conditions interacted with a vast ice sheet that once covered the land.

“If we were to go back 20,000 years then Scotland is covered by an ice sheet,” continued Dr Cook.

“The west coast would have been warmer and wetter, as it is today, with a lot more snowfall that helped to carve the spectacular landscapes that we see at places like Glencoe. By contrast, the Cairngorm plateau would have experienced a colder and drier continental climate, as today, with less snowfall to drive erosive glaciers.

“It’s hard to say for certain what the weather would have been like 20,000 years ago, but there may have been some broad similarities with today. We talk of Dundee as being the sunniest city in Scotland and when you compare it to places like Glasgow then, it is drier.

“That may be part of the reason why places like Glencoe look as steep and dramatic as they do today.”


Jonathan Watson

Senior Press Officer

+44 (0)1382 381489
Story category Research
Collection Climate Action