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2017 – winners announced

The 2017 Physical Geography Photo Competition set the challenge of telling a ‘landscape story’ via a photograph and an accompanying 250-word description outlining how physical geography created that landscape. (Photo: James Weir)

The main aim of the competition (organised by the Physical Geography Special Interest Group and sponsored by Páramo Directional Clothing Systems Ltd) is to provide an opportunity for students to apply their knowledge of physical geography.

Students were inspired to observe and interact with physical geography by finding interesting landscapes and attempting to describe them through a story. The most informative supported their analysis with research. The judges sought entries showing an interesting, thoughtful or unusual observation of a landscape from a physical perspective:

‘A photo should show some thought to composition so it is balanced and the focus of the selected landscape is clear. The story needed to be informative, reasonably accurate, and provide the reader with insights into how the landscape in the image had developed and been influenced by physical changes.’

‘It was very encouraging to see the great variety of interesting landscapes captured on camera. Clearly, students were inspired to get ‘out there’ to see what they could discover and it looks as though they had fun!’

Duncan Hawley, competition judge and Chair of the Physical Geography Special Interest Group.

Andrew Talks, Head of Geography at Lancaster of Royal Grammar School, encouraged his students to enter the competition because ‘it promotes ‘real’ geography where they take control of their own learning. … it gives students an opportunity to experience and think about the physical world in a different context.’

After much deliberation the judges selected those entries they considered best reflected the spirit of the 2017 challenge, which are shown here.

‘This competition energises and engages students in geography and gets them into interesting landscapes with a camera! It’s no surprise then why we sponsor this competition – it ticks many of our boxes – better understanding of the environment, venturing outside and capturing what they found; that thrilling sense of discovery and realisation of what is ‘out there’, all making geography accessible for students on their own terms. Páramo garments protect from the elements, whatever they throw at you; wild, wet, baking or biting!

‘Páramo kit offers a fast reaction to climate and activity changes and gives great comfort too. The ethically produced wind and waterproofs can also be easily repaired and will outlast conventional outdoor gear. We are delighted to be a partner in this competition and offer our products as prizes to students who have shown they have the ‘get up and go’ to find physical fascination and insight in the world outdoors.’

Helen Howard from the competition sponsor – Páramo Directional Clothing Systems Ltd


Winning entries

14-18 age category – James Weir

Lancaster Royal Grammar School

Title: It’s all in the layers

Location: Monument Creek, Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

Description: The sheer cliff walls of the Grand Canyon reveal over 500 million years of geological history. The clearly defined layers of sedimentary rocks chart the rising and falling of a prehistoric ocean that once covered this area.

The lowest layer of exposed rock visible here is the ochre Tapeats Sandstone. This was formed from sediments that were eroded from the cliffs of an erosional coastline through the processes of hydraulic action and abrasion and then deposited on the sea floor. As the climate heated up, the ocean rose to spill out over the cliffs of the coastline forming a warm shallow sea rich in life. Hard-shelled sea creatures died and their bodies sank to the sea floor eventually compressing to form the Redwall Limestone, the second layer in the picture. The distinctive, brick-red colouring of this layer is due to run-off from iron-rich upper layers.

The sea receded and the resulting dunes of quartzite sand led to the layer of coarse-grained vertical Coconino Sandstone. Then it yet again rose to form and its sediments created the Kaibab Limestone, the highest layer.

These rock layers were uplifted from the ocean bed to their present place, 7000ft above sea level, due to the Laramide Orogeny event, 75 million years ago. The Canyon itself was formed during the last two million years with fluvial processes and freeze-thaw weathering carving a valley a mile deep, subsequently revealing the strata which, today, tell us so much. It’s all in the layers.

Judging panel comments: Photographing a landscape from a low point is always a challenge, but this image admirably catches the vertical scale of the Grand Canyon and four major units of rock that have been exposed by its erosion. The succinct story captures how these rocks reflect changing environments and processes through time giving insights and developing the viewer’s imagination to interpret what otherwise might just appear to be big cliffs, so provoking us all to read more into the significance of layers wherever they appear in a landscape.


11-14 age category – Aron Arnason

Colyton Grammar School

Title: Past to present

Location: Pingvellir National Park, Iceland

Description: 18,000 years ago, an extensive glacier more than 1000 metres thick covered the region of Iceland where the North American and Eurasian plates met. Volcanic eruptions below the glacier, due to weaknesses opening up in the driving expansion zone, gradually formed palagonite ridges and mountains, where the ice reacted with magma. 10,000 years ago, when temperatures increased, the glacier gradually melted, exposing Armannsfell Mountain in the background. Soon after, a major eruption from a crater 3 miles east layered this newly exposed ground with igneous rock, as in the foreground.

As time went on, tension between the plates increased and periodically was released in earthquakes, which split the rock surface, as can be seen with Almannagja (the dramatic fault seen on the left), as well as the fissure in the foreground. Measurements suggest that the graben, created by this expansion zone, has subsided by 40 metres, and rifted by 70 metres across the 10,000 years of its existence.

Now in the present day, Iceland is a unique landmass, due to its position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, because the average altitude of the ridge is -6500 to -10,000 feet, whereas here, the effects of this expansion zone are seen above the surface of the sea. Unlike the common sparsely-vegetated tundra in Iceland, the small coniferous forest (on the right) could grow, because of rich nutrients in the ground due to the relatively young age of the igneous rock. Annually, the graben now widens by about 3mm, and will continue to change.

Judging panel comments: Although this is not an immediately striking photograph, it is well composed and balanced to show the variety of components that make up the landscape in the foreground and background. So, the more you look the more it becomes interesting; it has depth that is drawn out through the story which, in turn, draws you into looking at the landscape, outlining the sequence of processes that have created it. This thoughtful entry very clearly fulfils the competition theme and brief in telling the story of this Iceland landscape from past to present.

‘I was on holiday in Iceland, at Þingvellir, and I was inspired by the beautiful landscapes you can see there and felt intrigued by the processes behind their formation. I knew immediately what the subject of my entry would be.

‘I loved the photo I submitted, but you never know how others view things, so it was wonderful to hear the judges liked my photo too!

‘I think the research you do as part of the competition, regardless of your entry getting selected, is a great way of discovering more about the world around you and developing geographical skills.’


Runners up

2nd place 14-18 – Jamie Phillips

Sheldon School, Wiltshire

Title: Yosemite Falls

Location: Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Description: About 10 million years ago tectonic plate movement along the Sierra Nevada Fault saw the Sierra Nevada mountain range uplifted and tilted westward with the Sierra Nevada Batholith, a mass of intrusive igneous rock (primarily granite) formed deep below the surface, being exposed as the sedimentary and metamorphic rock was eroded.

The processes of abrasion, fracturing and weathering created various joint and fracture systems in the igneous rock. Subsequent erosion/exfoliation has been responsible for creating the valleys, canyons, domes and forming the features we see in the Yosemite Valley today.

The westward tilt accelerated the Merced River’s flow and the river cut deeper (~3000ft) into the V-shaped river valley. Its lateral tributaries with smaller drainage basins and volumes of water cut more slowly and were located high above the valley.

This, in combination with glaciation, resulted in the creation of “hanging valleys” providing many places for waterfalls such as the Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America (739m), to be created.

Around a million years ago a series of glaciations modified the valley area by accelerating mass wasting through ice wedging, glacial plucking, scouring/abrasion and the release of pressure after the retreat of each glaciation. The Sherwin Glacier turned the previously V-shaped river cut valley into the U-shaped glacial cut canyons of the modern park. Stripping and transporting top soil and talus piles down into the valleys glaciation resulted in the eventual creation of vegetation zones such Sentinel Meadow as seen in the photograph.

Judging panel comments: This photograph of a classic feature is well balanced in colour and contrast and is composed with even measure of foreground and sky and the main subject centrally focused. The description provides a refreshing sense of the story behind this waterfall landscape, in contrast to the more commonly taught ‘recipe’ for waterfall formation.

Here the landscape is rightly interpreted differently and its formation brought up to the present in the closing sentence by the inclusion of the meadow in the foreground. However, it is not always so easy to link the landscape features on view to the processes identified in the story, particularly where elements are abruptly introduced (the Merced Rivers) or repeated without clear explanation about the sequence of events. The overall result is a story that is not as fluent as it might have been. Nevertheless, this is a very meritable effort to capture and explain the story behind an impressive landscape.


2nd place 11-14 – Madeleine Bainbridge

Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls

Title: Looking towards the Rough Bounds of Knoydart; A Glacial Landscape

Location: Peak of Sgurr a’Mhaoraich (1027m), Loch Quioch

Description: This photograph shows a deep Scottish fjord (Loch Hourn, a sea loch) surrounded by beautiful peaks, including the 1020m high Ladhar Bheinn, which falls down into the sea. Loch Hourn is contained within a glacial trough carved out by the ice that covered the entirety of Scotland thousands of years ago. This ice dramatically raised sea levels, when it melted. The ice was especially thick on the west coast, and the most recent glaciation was only 116,000 to 11,500 years ago.

Ladhar Bheinn is a particularly important mountain, as it has a nunatak and a doppelgrat/split ridge. The doppelgrat is another feature caused by the glaciers, where the land has slipped down by 10-15 metres after a glacier undermined it. Smaller glaciers also carved out corries on the side of the mountain.

During the ice age the top of the tallest mountains poked out of the (nearly) kilometre thick ice (although only the very, very tips), therefore leaving them further exposed to weathering. Under the ice sheet any debris was carried away by the moving ice and the bedrock was scoured clean and bare, whereas the debris was left on the exposed peak. Ladhar Bheinn has a periglacial trim line that shows where the ice sheet ended, as it has weathered rock above it but not below. The section of mountain above the line is called a nunatak.

Interestingly, parts of Scotland, including Knoydart, are still rebounding (so eventually getting higher) from the weight of the ice sheets!

Judging panel comments: An interesting view of this landscape is shown via a nicely composed photograph with the colours that seem to match this bleak and expansive area. The story leaves a clear impression of the time when this landscape was ‘frozen’ and introduces some ‘technical’ geographical terms that indicate a good understanding of the most recent processes that have forged this landscape. However, it is not always easy to link these with the features in the photo to help interpretation of what is on view. Nevertheless this is a very good landscape story, worthy of being a winner.

‘From taking part in the competition I learnt a lot about glaciation which I would never otherwise have learnt. For example, I learnt about nunataks (tips that stuck out of the ice during the ice age, and therefore have a different appearance from the rest of the mountain) and doppelgrats/split ridges, caused by land slipping down after a glacier has burrowed underneath it.  

‘The competition has made me more interested in geography, as I’ve realised it is all around us and not just in one special instance shown in a textbook.’


3rd place 14-18 – Seb Granville

King’s College, Taunton

Title: The Steep and Stunning Cliffs of Cheddar Gorge.

Location, Cheddar Gorge

Description: Cheddar Gorge, lying in the heart of Somerset, is a perfect example of a carboniferous limestone landscape. Formed under the sea along the Equator 300 million years ago, the gorge was moved to its current location by extreme tectonic movements.

The plates were then thrusted upwards to form a substantially tall mountain range. The gorge itself was developed in the periglacial period, which has occurred over the past 1.2 million years. Throughout the ice ages, Cheddar was permanently frozen over, meaning the limestone was made impermeable. During the warmer periods, meltwater (which was acidic) was forced to flow on the frozen surface, which began to carve out the gorge through the process of carbonation.

Furthermore, when the ground was no longer frozen, water infiltrated the permeable limestone surface and flowed underground to sculpt the caves which are left beneath. As time has progressed, Cheddar Gorge has become victim to further erosional, weathering and mass movement processes which have led to an expansion in the gorge’s size.

The cliffs that can be seen within the gorge can reach heights of as much as 449ft, showing the sheer size of the gorge. To date, Cheddar Gorge is a popular attraction for tourists, attracting around 500,000 people per year. The road, shown in the photograph, is also a popular route for cyclists.

Judging panel comments: The judges were not entirely sure whether the effects in this photograph were deliberate, but the changing perspective and light of this gorge landscape delivers a sense of solidity at the base in contrast to the over-exposed top that highlights the tottering towers whilst the viewpoint cleverly depicts the road to leave a clear impression of its meandering form.

The story provides a sequenced account of the formation of the gorge, although some parts are short on pertinent details that would fill in gaps. A minor but important point notes that physical geographers work in metric (SI) units rather than imperial measures (ft). Also, there is limited mention of the key features seen in the photo and their contribution to the landscape.

For example, interpretation of the ‘tower’ structures, created by weathering processes exploiting fissures in the limestone, might have provided a much more focussed physical finish to the story. Nevertheless this is a good attempt to show and explain the circumstances that created this vertical landscape.

‘I began to think of local ‘landscape stories’ and Cheddar Gorge came straight to mind. I had previously been to the Cheddar area but I’d never visited the gorge itself; this encouraged me to explore the gorge, appreciate the fantastic views and take some photos.

‘From taking part in the competition I learnt more about the formation of Cheddar Gorge. The research I undertook enhanced my understanding of features formed by tectonic movements, mass movement and erosional processes.

‘The competition has made me more interested in the wider scale of geography, having realised that features and landforms that are taken for granted retain a great depth of geographical history. This has encouraged me to think more about other local features and the history behind them.’


3rd place 11-14 – Neil Triparthi

St Olave’s Grammar School, Orpington

Title: Hexagonal Rock Columns at Svartifoss

Location: Skaftafell, Vatnajokull National Park, Iceland

Description: The Icelandic waterfall Svartifoss is a major tourist attraction in Skaftafell, Vatnajökull National Park. For a relatively small waterfall, it is quite a popular tourist attraction. This is because of the hanging hexagonal rock columns of basalt formed by geothermal activity. This phenomenon was caused by the difference in time of the lava from the pattern of the erupted lava cooling around a cliff. The area around Svartifoss is mostly made of Basalt, which was also mainly what the lava was made from. When the lava flow fell over the cliff, over time, the columns began to form.

After the eruption, this ridge would have looked very different from what it does today. Lava would have flown over the ridge forming the complex, irregular shapes that are always littered around volcanic areas. Further inside these lava flows though, lava was compressed and contracted by outer layers that cooled faster than the inner layers.

Along the cross-section of each of these columns, the lava cooled equally in all directions and, due to the crystalline structure, formed hexagonal shapes. Eventually, streams of water emerging from nearby glaciers found their way to the lava formations and over millennia, eroding the outer layers and leaving the compact hexagonal columns standing. This is how the hanging rock columns of Svartifoss were born.

Judging panel comments: This photo makes for an intriguing landscape; the ‘hanging’ Basalt columns mirror the vertical ‘drop’ of the water; which an uninformed imagination might suggest ‘magical’ powers turning water into stone. However, the story easily dispels any such myths in highlighting how the key process responsible for this landscape was the cooling of igneous rock.

There are a couple places in the story where clarity or accuracy need a ‘tweak’ (e.g. compressed and contracted should be ‘insulated’) but the overall process is clear and well sequenced. A timescale would have nicely rounded the story but nevertheless this is a very meritable interpretation that gives insights into how this columnar landscape was formed.

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