Sunday 31 December 2023

The Ups and Downs of Ice Flow

 I am told there is some confusion being spread about glaciers and ice sheets flowing uphill. Contrary to the impression some people have got they obey the simple law of gravity, they flow downhill.

But when they are constrained in a passageway either by mountains or other large amounts of ice of course the flow can rise up and over obstacles because of the pressure from the weight of the ice above. The total mass is flowing downhill even if parts of it are going up.

A simple experiment will show it how works, find a short flexible but reasonably stiff string of beads. Provided the are constrained in tube or valley they can easily be pushed over obstacles and will happily bump over ridges on their way downhill.

The key is that their lateral movement is controlled. Now consider the broad dry Bristol Channel during the last ice age, there are no mountains and, as it is at the edge of the ice sheet, no deep layers of ice to constrain any flowing ice. It will follow the downward slope. Try pushing your beads across an incline with a lip at the far edge. Down the slippery slope they will go, not deep into Somerset.

Thursday 28 December 2023

Recent Ice Dropped Boulders

Icebergs which may have dropped debris, including boulders, sailed to our latitudes in the last little ice age, it wasn't just Frost Fairs on the Thames. 

Iceberg at the western harbour head of Delfshaven on January 2, 1565 during the cold wave in the Little Ice Age - Cornelis Jacobsz van Culemborch 1565 - (The grounded iceberg was measured at more than 6 meters high and almost 70 meters long).

So maybe some of those ice dropped boulders on our coasts haven't been there that long.  

As Bing imagines it.

Bristol Channel Boulders - No Ice Required

On 30 January 1607, around noon, the coasts of the Bristol Channel suffered from unexpectedly high floodings that broke the coastal defences in several places. Low-lying places in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and South Wales were flooded. The devastation was particularly severe on the Welsh side, extending from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow in Monmouthshire. Cardiff was the most badly affected town, with the foundations of St Mary's Church destroyed. It is estimated that 2,000 or more people were drowned, houses and villages were swept away, an estimated 200 square miles (51,800 ha) of farmland inundated, and livestock destroyed,wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary.

But there was another legacy of the flooding, thought to be a tsunami caused by an underwater earthquake, it moved boulders on the edges of the Bristol Channel.

A very detailed paper which explains the positioning of many Bristol Channel boulders as tsunami relics. Calling them all glacial erratics may be simply wrong.

Glacial Gradients and Gravity

There is a suggestion that the glacial gradient from South Wales to Stonehenge was sufficient for ice to flow along it:


Just a reminder that during the last ice age the Bristol Channel was above sea level and was a deep wide valley. Glaciers flow downhill so rather than the ice floating up the channel and landing on the Somerset coast from south Pembrokeshire it would have followed the gradient. 

Figure based on: "Location and bathymetry of the Bristol Channel. Contours are depths in metres relative to mean sea level" from "Impact of Tidal Energy Converter (TEC) Array Operation on Sediment Dynamics" - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from:

Unpredictable weather not unprecedented again.

 A year ago The National Trust warned of the dangers of the new norm of "tumultuous weather" - This year the National Trust is: "sounding the alarm for UK wildlife as the loss of predictable weather patterns and traditional seasonal shifts causes chaos for nature."

As a worrier myself, and as this endangers ancient sites, I was intrigued enough to quickly look to at the historical records to see if the unpredictability was unprecedented. 

My approach was to graph the difference between one year's temperature, or rainfall, record and the previous year's. 

So for instance 2022's mean temperature was 10 deg C and 2021's 10.3 so I record that as a drop of 0.3 for 2022. Obviously the larger the gains and drops the more "unpredictable" the weather is. 

Last year's post is here: and has links to data sources and results.

I have updated the data and there is no change in the pattern, the amount of unpredictability by my definition seems to be same. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that the amount of unpredictability is unprecedented or unusual so far. Against a background of rising temperatures this is good news and long may it continue.

If anyone is interested in the Data or more graphs please get in touch.


Sunday 24 December 2023

Debunking Pigs From Scotland

 Last year I did a round-up of the Isotope evidence for "neolithic pigs from Scotland"  - . 

I missed another paper that came out a fortnight later:

Dr Gordon Barclay kindly pointed this out to me and so I should update the record:

The paper is open access, so please read it. The key passage is:

Key to this study is our ability to distinguish between northern and southern British Pb sources and this can be achieved because of differences in the underlying geology between these two parts of Great Britain. The Pb isotope composition of rocks and minerals tends to be dominated by major geological tectonic events such as mountain building, which is accompanied by metamorphism and the intrusion of granites, the heat from which drives the re-mobilisation of Pb to create ore deposits.

The junction between these two tectonic plates is called the Iapetus Suture and it runs on a NE–SW line from Berwick-upon-Tweed to the Solway Firth and projects into Ireland.The underlying geology to the north and south of this suture is fundamentally different; the Laurentian basement, to the north, is geologically much older (> 3000Ma–c. 1750Ma) and is depleted in uranium (U) whereas the Avalonia basement in the south is geologically much younger (c. 700Ma), and this means the Pb isotope compositions, related to the basements of the two areas, are different. As this geological boundary essentially defines the modern political border of Scotland with England, it provides a potential method of discriminating between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain.

The conclusion is quite clear, in their opinion: 

"We have tested this application using a sample of Neolithic pig enamel from sites in southern England, some of which, because of Sr isotope composition, could not be excluded from an origin in northern Britain. Pb isotope data from the teeth excludes Scotland as a source but the diverse range of Pb isotope results, combined with other isotope proxies, are consistent with the animals being raised on a variety of lithologies of diverse age and from variable environments."

So is this end of the idea of neolithic links between Scotland and Stonehenge, I wouldn't bet on it.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Laying out the Sarsen horseshoe using triangles.

From William Stukeley onwards the geometry underlying the arrangement of the stones of Stonehenge has lead to many different diagrams, usually with arcs and sometimes with triangles and hexagons.

Quick doodles based on the triangle I deduced from Tim Darvill's work: has lead me to simple diagram which matches the geometry of the flat faces of the trilithons in the inner horseshoe. It seems different to the historical other diagrams I have seen but I would be surprised if it is new. If you know of a prior example please tell me.

Please excuse a rough diagram:

But you say; "Tim,  you endlessly witter on about the middle trilithon and the Altar Stone being at 80 degrees, rather than 90, to the central axis of the monument".

Behold, I respond, if you turn the triangle one gap rather than two it gives a 12 degree twist which is close enough for government work.