This week I am putting together a new introductory lecture on Glacial Geomorphology for my re-organised Glaciers module. What might one say right at the start of a series of lectures on glacial geomorphology? I thought I might say something like this:
For many of us one big reason for getting interested in Physical Geography has been an interest in the physical environment around us. Our most immediate and direct contact with the rest of the universe is through the small part of it that we can see and touch and walk around. We can experience and witness the wonders of the universe, at least in a small way, through the wonders of our own planet.
The world is an amazing place, and many of us became geographers because we wanted to experience, know about, and work in the world’s great landscapes: mountains, deserts, volcanoes, glaciers… There are many elements to a landscape, from the underlying rocks to the plants that grow on them and the structures that people build, but if we strip away everything that is superficial the underlying framework of a landscape is its topography, its shape, its morphology. That is one reason why many people put geomorphology at the heart of Physical Geography.
One of the reasons that some of us have been drawn especially to the geomorphology of harsh wilderness environments such as deserts, high mountains and glacial areas is that in these environments the superficial elements are swept away. Vegetation is limited. Human structures are few. The basics of the landscape, its bones, are clearly exposed. The underlying framework becomes prominent in these environments.
Glacial landscape in West Greenland
The most valuable experience in my professional life has been to spend extended periods of time in these remote places. It has been worthwhile not only for their intrinsic interest but also because having seen landscapes with the superficial elements removed now allows me to recognise the same basic structural elements when I see them in other environments where they are largely obscured by superficial clutter. It’s easy to be amazed and say “wow” at a huge meltwater channel cutting through the frozen tundra, but very difficult even to recognise that spectacular channel when it is covered in woodland and urban development where it cuts through Stoke-on-Trent.
So the first great joy of glacial geomorphology is the opportunity to see geomorphology with a special clarity in modern glacial environments where processes and landforms are very prominent in the landscape. The second great joy of glacial geomorphology is being able to transfer the clarity of vision gained in modern glacial environments to the study of ancient glacial environments such as those in the UK where the evidence is often less prominent.