Dundee under ice - new project reveals how Dundee may have looked during the Ice Age

13 September 2021
A new project and accompanying video reveal how Dundee may have appeared 20,000 years ago, when it was buried deep beneath a massive ice sheet.

A lockdown in Scotland led to a US-based academic teaming up with an animation expert from the University of Dundee to create a film depicting the landscape of the city during the last Ice Age.

Max Van Wyk de Vries, a glaciologist at the University of Minnesota, was visiting his Dundee-based girlfriend when the UK and US went into lockdown last March. Faced with working remotely 3600 miles from his workplace, Max decided to use his professional expertise to satisfy his curiosity about his temporary home.

Dundee in the Ice Age

Max began researching the landscape of the local area and how it had been shaped by climactic events 20,000 years ago. At that time, Dundee sat beneath a gigantic, 1km-thick ice sheet that covered most of the British Isles as well as much of the North Sea and a large area of Scandinavia.

As the planet warmed again around 15,000 years ago, the retreating ice carved out instantly recognisable local landmarks such as the 174m-tall Dundee Law, the Sidlaws, and the Tay estuary.

“I had been on a field trip helping to set up weather stations in Patagonia as Covid-19 started to spread across the world so I got caught out a bit and wasn’t able to get back to the States,” Max said. “When we weren’t allowed to leave our local area during lockdown, my girlfriend and I spent a lot of time exploring Dundee and the small area beyond it we could visit for exercise.

“That got me thinking about these lovely landscapes and how they were formed by the flowing ice. I was working remotely but missed doing something local so I thought this would be an opportunity to work in my immediate environment, find out more about how it came to be the way it is and recreate how it would have looked 20,000 years ago.

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“I studied a number of old papers using local data and ice models to calculate what this massive glacier would have been like. I also looked at satellite images of glaciers that still exist in Greenland to get an idea what they might have looked like in Scotland.”

Having carried out his research, Max began working on ways of summarising it for a non-specialist audience. After receiving public engagement funding from the British Society for Geomorphology for this purpose he sought the expertise of Kieran Duncan, a lecturer in Communication Design at the University’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, to help visualise the project.

The result is a 3-minute film that combines filmed footage, time-lapse video, and animated visualisation techniques to demonstrate the awesome scale of the glacier that covered the area and its impact.

“Part of the film shows what a 1km ice sheet would have looked like on top of the Law, and I remember my mind being blown when Max first told me about that,” said Kieran. “You hear numbers like that but it’s only when you see what that would have looked like in relation to something like the Law, which towers above the city, that you really start to conceive of just how massive this glacier was. 

“This has been a fantastic project to work on as it’s a great way to demonstrate to people how their environment came to be the way it is.”

The final work features in the Time & Tide exhibition showing at The McManus; Dundee’s Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 3 October.

(Report courtesy University of Dundee)