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GIS in the Classroom Blog 5: How can we use GIS to investigate glaciation?

Brendan Conway

25th May 2023

Although there’s a tendency to associate glacial landscapes with upland areas, the whole of Britain and Ireland, along with many other mid-latitude countries, have been profoundly sculpted by glacial processes. How can GIS resources help us to explore such landscapes in different places? We will look at some 3D resources about different types of glacial landforms.

The National Library of Scotland has an excellent interactive 3D function providing a very accessible way to investigate the wonderful landforms of glacial erosion in the UK. For instance, go to the Helvellyn massif in the Lake District, Cumbria and look out for a pyramidal peak, several arêtes, attendant corries, a glacial tarn, scree slopes, a ribbon lake and U-shaped valleys containing misfit streams.

Geospatial visualisations can provide powerful support for learning about depositional glacial landforms. Ireland has around 25,000 drumlins[1], often found in ‘swarms’. They can be viewed using aerial imagery ‘as they are’, but by adding the LiDAR-enabled ‘Elevation Tinted Hillshade’ layer[2], the distinctive ‘basket of eggs’ landscape is revealed, such as in County Cavan, with the drumlins’ stoss and lee indicating the direction of glacier movement.

Similarly, virtual reality can be used to explore the spectacular drumlin islands of Clew Bay, Mayo, Ireland (360VR)

The areas of the UK not occupied by glaciers were profoundly impacted by periglacial processes. Even the famous south coast chalk cliffs owe their morphology to glaciation. The South Downs chalk was once permafrost tundra. The now dry valleys behind the famous Seven Sisters cliffs in East Sussex were created by cascades of glacial meltwater: ‘Under periglacial conditions in the Ice Age…the joints in the chalk would have been sealed by ice and so the water would have flowed in rivers across the surface of the rock.’[3] We can explore this in 3D Scene using imagery and the OS 1:25000 layer[4]. The measurement tools enable virtual fieldwork such as measurement of the cliff height.

For glaciated landscapes elsewhere, the Himalaya is a superb area to study glaciation ‘as it happens’ with opportunities for synoptic thinking about young fold mountains and human impacts on fragile cold environments. Due to the ongoing collision of the Eurasian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates, the Himalaya are still growing at about 10mm per year, but like rodent teeth, are also undergoing active erosion by cold environment processes. With the help of GIS, we can see both past and present impacts of glacial processes.

The first successful ascent of Mount Everest (Sagarmatha; Chomolungma) took place seven decades ago on 29th May 2023 1953. New GIS resources can be used to explore the glacial landforms of the area and to promote thinking about the legacies of the 1953 expedition, including the development of technologies to enable human beings to survive and thrive in extreme environments or the impact of extreme tourism on such areas. There are three formats (3D Scene; 2D time-enabled web map; 360VR) based on the same new data layers.

The short video, above, shows how the 3D Scene works, by clicking the slides with saved views and clicking the points to show further details, such as images from the RGS archive and GIF clips from the Oscar-nominated documentary film ‘The Conquest of Everest’.

[1] Drumlin Landscapes (2018) by Lilian O’Sullivan, Brian Reidy, Rachel Creamer

[2] ‘Elevation Tinted Hillshade’ layer is available with free school subscription to ArcGIS Online.

[3] 'Discovering Landscape in England & Wales' by Andrew Goudie and Rita Gardner p106

[4] Link shows the same 3D Scene with open access map layers. Ordnance Survey layers are available with free school subscription to ArcGIS Online.

Brendan Conway

Brendan has over thirty years’ experience as a teacher of Geography and head of department. He led his current department to become a Geographical Association Centre of Excellence. In addition to being an author of geographical texts and resources, he also works in Initial Teacher Training (ITT), Erasmus Plus projects and supports schools with GIS as an Esri Geomentor.

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