I've been asked to post this on Chionophile's behalf, inserting photographic references. It's a fairly comprehensive rebuttal of the recent papers. I've taken the liberty of linking to some photographs within the text, which illustrate the points that are being made.
"I have read the full papers by Kirkbride et al. and Harrison et al., kindly sent to me by both these first authors. As I wrote in my book A Snow Book, Northern Scotland, the evidence at Garbh Choire Mor, the snowiest site in the Cairngorms, is that the supposed moraine ridge is a protalus rampart, fed annually by boulders, soil, vegetation and other debris coming down in avalanches. Other gravel etc comes down in flash floods down the gullies. In recent years I have not been fit enough, due to illnesses, to reach Garbh Choire Mor and check for myself. However, I wrote some suggestions for fieldwork, which were checked and agreed by Sandy Walker of Grantown, the pre-eminent expert on the soils of the Cairngorms and the Spey and Findhorn catchments.
I gave these suggestions to Attila Kish. As I explained in my book A Snow Book, Northern Scotland, Attila dug with a trowel to expose the upper soil, described the ridge's features, and took photographs. The 12-15 inches thickness of dark organic 'topsoil', in fact, mainly aerobic humus and not peat (peat would not develop on such a freely drained ridge), was far too great for a moraine, and clearly was due to continual accretion of organic material such as vegetation and upper soil horizons from the corrie behind, transported mainly by avalanche, but with flash floods and debris flows providing some extra material. After the book was published, Iain Cameron did the same and confirmed the same, with photographs
and a video
. Such a thick dark horizon would be regarded as unusually thick even for a moorland or woodland soil that had been cultivated.
In areas of acidic bedrock, such as the granite of the Cairngorms, a moraine has a clearly defined soil profile with different soil horizons. These include very thin acidic dark horizons (humus and A1) above a dark greyish horizon or A2 (all these combined often called ‘topsoil’ by laymen), above a strongly coloured orange-brown sandy or gravelly B2 or ‘subsoil’. Other glacial deposits, till or sometimes called boulder clay under the glacier, and fluvio-glacial deposits washed out by glacial rivers, have their own characteristic horizons. This differentiates them more clearly and reliably than any surface measurements by geomorphologists. The paper by Kirkbride et al. mentions moraines and till sheets, but describes no back-up checks using soil pits. In their reply to me in the MCofS website, it is stated that I was incorrect in saying they had dud no soil pit. Well, if they did dig one or more, why were these not mentioned in their paper, which gives only the briefest description of the soil and vegetation?
Both the 2014 papers are typical studies of geomorphologists who fail to dig a single soil pit and ignore fundamental principles of soil science. This failure includes Sugden, who made the priginal proposal of glaciers in several corries of the Cairngorms in the 1700s and one in Garbh Choire Mor in the early 1800s. Kirkbride et al. stated that the ridges in Coire an Lochain of Cairn Gorm, which he called moraines, 'contain angular granite clasts, up to boulder size' (undefined), 'in a matrix of coarse sand and grit'. Hence there was no soil profile in the ridges that he described. This rules out moraines without further ado. The Harrison et al. paper was more reprehensible in omitting to make any description of the below-surface material in the ridge that he studied. However, it should have been an elementary precaution and common sense to dig a pit to examine whether there was a soil profile and to describe it or the lack of it, as well as the vegetation in some detail.
The paper by Harrison et al. is uncritical in dismissing the possibility of a protalus rampart at Garbh Choire Mor on the basis of personal opinions on the unlikelihood of boulders and other debris travelling so far in avalanches (one also needs to take into account other mass movements such as in flash floods and debris flows). This signifies that they have never witnessed avalanches in these corries or their aftermath that can be seen readily in photographs
showing a spread of debris down the snowfield below the gullies and cliffs, all the way down to the ridge in Garbh Choire Mor. Kirkbride et al. did not cite my Snow Book of 2011 and hence ignored its evidence. Harrison et al. did cite the book, but dismissed the hypothesis of a protalus rampart because they stated that the distance was too far from the bottom of the cliffs (in fact, the debris comes down from the top of the cliffs, via the gullies especially and also the cliffs themselves during cornice collapse, not just from the bottom of the cliffs). This again shows the lack of experience of Harrison et al. in field observations of debris crossing the snowfield and coming from the tops of the gullies and cliffs..
The claim in Kirkbride et al. about moraines in Coire an Lochain of Cairn Gorm is particularly unlikely. A snow patch survives till winter during very few years in that corrie, whereas in Garbh Choire Mor the patches almost always survive till winter, and hence this is the most likely site for a glacier in Scotland.
At Coire an Lochain I suggest that the ridges in the paper of Kirkbride et al. are a result of debris flows coming down the gullies during intense rainstorms . Such flows gouge deeply into the unstable pink scree and sand and boulders of the gullies, depositing it into fans that reach the lochans below, as well as ridges at the side of the flow where the force is less great. The authors described sharp-angled pink-coloured boulders in a matrix of coarse sand and grit, contrasting with the grey, weathered, more rounded boulders on slopes nearby. The grey colour is due to rock lichens, not mentioned by the authors, whereas the rock lichens cannot grow on loose boulders below the surface in the gullies, owing to lack of light, so one then sees the pink colour of pristine Cairngorms granite. The descriptions by Kirkbride et al. fit exactly with debris flows. In the early hours of 4 July 1976, a severe thunderstorm knocked out the electricity supply at Coire Cas and intense rain caused scores of debris flows in the Lairig Ghru, and some above Loch Avon and in Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain of Cairn Gorm. (Photograph links 1
). These occurred within a few hours, and were there when I climbed to the plateau before dawn. In the afternoon I took a few photographs. There were marked ridges in Coire an t-Sneachda and smaller ones but a bigger fan in Coire an Lochain. The tops of the ridges began at about the level of the foot of the cliffs, where the gradient eased. Photographs of the boulders, smaller stones, and sand and gravel showed pink material with no rock lichens.
Both papers are uncritical in not stating the authors’ null hypotheses, and also omitting explicit statements of their alternative or working hypotheses (their favoured ideas). The essence of reliable scientific progress is to search for evidence against one’s working hypothesis. It does not matter how experienced or famed a scientist is, or how many colleagues combine in a paper, if a different person comes up with a better and more reliable story, preferably if it is replicated, or even comes up with a flaw in the arguments. The best practitioners are well aware that this is the case and that their precious conclusions may not stand the test of time and new fieldwork. In consequence, they tend not to be defensive of their conclusions. Strong defensiveness or even anger are natural human traits, but in scientists, though all too common, they signify a less deep experience and indeed immaturity.