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Durham University

Department of Geography

Departmental Research Projects

Publication details

Evans, D.J.A., Harrison, S., Vieli A. & Anderson E. The glaciation of Dartmoor: the southernmost independent Pleistocene icecap in the British Isles. Quaternary Science Reviews. 2012;45:31-53.

Author(s) from Durham


The granite uplands of Dartmoor have traditionally been considered to be relict permafrost and periglacial landscapes that lay beyond the limits of Quaternary glaciations but a variety of landform evidence indicates that a plateau icefield existed on the northern part of the moor, constituting the southernmost independent ice cap in the British Isles. Overdeepened or weakly U-shaped valley segments fringing north Dartmoor document an early, extensive phase of glaciation but the most convincing landform evidence relates to more recent, valley-based glacier occupancy. A moraine ridge on the Slipper Stones represents the most unequivocal palaeo-glacier on north Dartmoor with a palaeo-ELA of c.460 m above sea level (asl), although this relates to the youngest and most restricted phase of glaciation. A longer term ELA is likely to be represented by the Corn Ridge proto-cirque at 370–410 m asl. More extensive valley glaciers are recorded in each of the major drainage basins of north Dartmoor by arcuate and linear bouldery ridges and hummocky valley floor drift, which are interpreted as latero-frontal moraines deposited by outlet lobes of a plateau icefield. Recession of these lobes is marked by inset sequences of such ridges and occasional meltwater channels. Plateau ice was predominantly thin and protective, and snowblow and preferential accumulation in valley heads facilitated the modest glacial erosion and debris transport recorded in the landforms and sediments. It is proposed that the highest plateaux have been occupied by ice for the longest cumulative period of time throughout the Quaternary (“average glacial conditions”), explaining the distribution of different tor types on northern Dartmoor. This also explains the lack of tors on the most expansive of the highest plateau terrain (ice dispersal centres) as the product of: a) average glacial conditions preferentially removing tors or dampening their production rates; b) the survival of high relief (Type 1) tors during glaciation if they occupy summits too narrow to develop significant plateau icefields and/or ridges that are bypassed by faster moving ice in adjacent deep valleys; and c) the survival of subdued (Type 2) tors in areas glaciated less regularly during the Quaternary. Simple ice flow modelling indicates that a plateau icefield type glaciation is required for significant ice flow to occur and confirms thin ice cover, in particular on narrow summits, thereby supporting the explanation of tor class distribution. The modelling allows us to spatially correlate the geomorphological evidence of margin positions into two major stages and further indicates a strong altitude–mass balance feedback leading to an ice cap that is not in balance with its climate and with an extent that is limited by the length of the cold phases rather than their severity.

Department of Geography