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2023 – winners announced

The 2023 competition, generously sponsored by the British Society for Geomorphology, focused on students finding and taking a photo to demonstrate the mobile Earth and Earth as a flowing machine.

Students’ images needed to show or convey movement of Earth material(s), or a landform or feature produced by materials movement, or evidence of a process or an agent that causes movement of Earth materials.

Each photo was accompanied with its precise location and up to 250 words that describe the focus of the physical geography in the example, explaining what it reveals or demonstrates about the mobile Earth, and how the movement happened.

While the theme of the competition changes every year, the ethos remains the same: to encourage young people to explore the land around them and photograph an aspect of physical geography, explained in their extended caption. There are two age categories, 11–14 and 14–18, and prizes are awarded to the top three entries in each category. Congratulations to everyone who took part!

11–14 category (years 7–9)

1st prize: Caty Neufeld, Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School

Title: Nature’s power at Powerscourt

Caty’s description

Location: Powerscourt estate, Ireland. 53.146 o North, 06.211 o West

The Powerscourt waterfall, set at the foot of the Wicklow mountains, is the tallest waterfall in Ireland, reaching 121m/398ft. The reason I chose this as the subject of my photo was because I felt it captured the essence of our mobile earth with its great history of glacial movement, which contrasts with the active movement of the rushing water.

Powerscourt is situated in an area formed by ancient glacial erosion. This happened when the main glacier eroded a deep U-shaped valley with steep sides, while the tributary glacier, with a smaller volume of ice, made a shallower U-shaped valley.

When the glaciers melted there was left one very deep valley and another much smaller valley. Once melted, the glacier was replaced by a river which flowed into the smaller valley, as it was higher than the main valley, this tributary created a waterfall. This river is now known as the river Dargle.

Today, instead of erosion by a glacier, erosion by the river/waterfall itself takes place. When the glacier was active, during the ice age, matter was moved by the dragging of this massive ice structure on the ground. After it melted, the river took over and now it moves matter through its different actions on the ground, in a much faster manner.

This is a great example of both the historic movement of the ice eroding the landscape and the water that took over to create this beautiful waterfall. which erodes the rock in a different way.

Judging panel comments

This is a well-chosen and composed example to convey the idea of movement – you can feel the falling splash and spray of water as you look at the photo, and the perspective gives a sense of the steep, high backwall of rock.

The well-researched interpretation offers good insight into the origin of the waterfall and how it was formed by glacial action deepening Powerscourt ‘corrie’ and leaving a ‘hanging valley’ above – two geographical terms that would have been useful to incorporate. This waterfall clearly doesn’t conform to the ‘standard’ hard rock – soft rock erosion recipe!

The transition from ice to river movement of material is a nice reference to continuity of processes, but misses out how torrents of water from the melting ice added to the actions of a mobile Earth and is reflected in the massive boulders at the base of the waterfall – today’s less powerful water is a relatively clear gush.

Overall, this thoughtfully constructed photo and explanation has a clarity and merit that gains it a well-deserved place in the winners.

2nd prize: Imina Richmond, Stroud High School

Title: Rock arch formation

Imina’s description

Location: Skrinkle Haven, Manorbier, Pembrokeshire

Here is a picture of a sea arch that I took in Tenby. When I saw this in person, I was dumbfounded at the scale of natural phenomenon and amazed that it was made purely by physical geography!

Sea arches, just like this one, are formed when rocks that are weaker than the surrounding ones are eroded, forming cracks and eventually caves.

When these caves are further eroded, often in a sand-papering effect, they often turn into arches that cut through the headland. Eventually, the top of the arch collapses, as the arch is no longer able to support itself, leaving a stack.

Imina Richmond from Stroud High School
Imina Richmond from Stroud High School

This is a tall rock formation which stands by itself, separate from the headland. The stack is eroded again and again over a long period of time (by many different processes of erosion, some previously stated), and finally forms a stump, which is a smaller and smoother version of a stack.

The sea arch in my photo is still in its early stages, and the small cluster of rocks at the top will soon fall and be broken into sediment which will be swept away by the sea.

All of this is relevant to me as I am always curious about how all sea and landforms are created and how they work.

This links my photo to the theme of ‘Mobile Earth’ as it demonstrates the movement (also removal) of the rocks and sea and shows that Earth is a flowing machine!

Judging panel comments

A dramatic photograph, composed to give a sense of height and verticality. The central gap with blue sky showing through indicates something is missing – and begs the question how has it been removed?

The caption begins to unravel the ‘mystery’ of the gap, and gives the ‘model’ explanation of coastal arch formation, but does that apply to this arch? The rock type is the same throughout so does ‘rocks that are weaker’ refer to a higher density of cracks in some areas – it is worth observing to see if this matches the gap area. Also it is not clear how the ‘sandpapering’ process would work with such a tall feature as even stormy seas may not create big enough waves to reach the upper parts of this arch.

Does the pattern of cracks suggest blocks of the rock were prized out by the action of hydraulic pressure, and unsupported, they fall into the sea below? These are good physical geography questions to stimulate curiosity and possibly solve the ‘mystery’ of the gap. What is certain is the small cluster of rocks at the top will eventually fall and be made mobile by the sea.

Overall, this photo has merit in its attempt to account for the structure, the gap and the landscape that will develop resulting from processes that remove and move raw rock material. And the spirit of curiosity and linking in to the theme is admirable.

3rd prize: Beatrix Walker, St Paul’s School for Girls

Title: Mauna Loa lava flow from 1859

Beatrix’s description

Location: Mauna Loa, Hawaii

This photo was taken whilst my family and I were walking on top of a solidified lava flow from 1859, one of the newest on the island (Hawai’i).

The colour of the flow reflects its age, as over time the lava bleaches brown from the sun. The dark grey of the flow, as well as the clearly defined features, show how new it is.

As shown in the photo, there are many little ‘folds’ in the lava. This occurs when the lava comes up against an obstacle in its path, so folds to fit against the limited space it is offered. This obstacle could be anything from a tree to already dried lava (igneous rock). This smooth pahoehoe lava (the Hawai’ian term for smooth lava with a low thickness) is just one demonstration of the mobile earth.

All over the 32-mile flow, you can see tufts of yellow grass in the natural rifts between the lava, suggesting that there may be fertile soil above the lava – and indeed, volcano debris has many key aspects essential to plant growth, such as potassium and phosphorus.

However, this would not have been possible immediately after the eruption – and lava can take anywhere from 3 to 3 thousand years to let the weathering take its toll and produce soil, another ongoing process of the mobile earth.

Judging Panel Comments

Although now solid, the surface of pahoehoe lava gives a vivid sense of its former flowing movement. This has been very effectively captured in the composition of this photograph, in which you can imagine the heat, and for these reasons the judges enjoyed the image.

The observation of folds on the surface of the lava is a good one and the brief note on how they formed begins to explain but doesn’t quite unravel how the fold ‘fits against the limited space’. Linking more clearly to the mobility of lava, with a note on the curved shape of the ‘ropes’ and the eruptive lobes bursts clearly seen in the photo would have added value and understanding, as, perhaps, a note about how the lava indicates mobility within the Earth. As such, the final reference to soil and weathering seems off-theme.

Overall, this is a striking photograph, enabled by a keenness of observation, which offers an essential explanation of what can be seen, so on balance, it merits a deserved place amongst the winners.

14–18 category (years 10–13)

1st prize: Sophie Hilgers, Peter Symonds College

Title: ‘Rolling’ down the hill

Sophie’s description

Location: Calne, Wiltshire

Many, many years ago in Calne, Wiltshire, a very slow, granular scale process called soil creep started. We can see this by the ‘waves’ called terracettes in the soil and the leaning fence posts. This makes the slope look like it’s ‘rolling’ away.

This process occurs on gentle slopes when soil has either frozen, gotten wet or has been heated up by the sun. This causes the particles to expand. Then when the soil begins to thaw, dry out or cool down, the particles shrink and are brought upwards, then out and deposited back down to meet the slope at a 90-degree angle (perpendicular). This is aided by gravity.

As time goes on so does the process of expanding and shrinking throughout the wet and dry conditions.

Every hour, minute and second, this process is happening because it is continuous and never stops. In this picture, we can see soil creep at two different stages, the hill directly in front of the camera has deep terracettes, whereas the hill to the right has soft, shallow ones. This tells us that soil creep has been active for longer or has been more effective on the hill directly facing us and therefore, shows us our mobile Earth.

Judging panel comments

On first glance this is a somewhat ‘plain’ location, but the title points to something more and gives an immediate impression of what is happening on these grassy slopes.

This is reinforced in the opening paragraph of the caption, which directs the gaze of the viewer to salient features and puts the apt title in context. It draws the viewer in to the photo.

It is followed by a good attempt to describe the soil creep process that forms the feature. There is, however, one point of confusion. It is not the (soil) particles that expand and shrink, it is the pore spaces between them that fill with water or ice, causing the particles to be ‘lifted’ and as a result the surface level of the soil to be raised by a few millimetres.

Similarly the particles do not ‘shrink’ but when the lifting agent vacates the space (through thawing or drying out), the particles drop vertically due to gravity, and so ‘fall’ down slope (no aid is needed). Nevertheless, it is clear the principle is understood, although the (important) detail of the process needs adjustment so as not to mislead. The judges feel this could be easily done.

A good impression of the slow, continuous nature of soil creep is conveyed. Finally, our eye is re-focused on a contrasting set of teracettes, offering two plausible hypotheses that might account for the difference.

This photo and thoughtful explanation shows that we can be aware of, witness, and ask intriguing questions of the mobile Earth in many unexpected places. It merits a well-deserved first prize.

2nd prize: Andrea Li, West Island School, Hong Kong

Title: Landslips and slides

Andrea’s description

Location: Hong Kong Island

As a city built on various mountains and slopes, HK is frequently plagued with landslides as a result of torrential rains and high humidity.

The landslide depicted in this photo is a result of the Typhoon Saola that occurred 1st of September as well as heavy rainfall that occurred 8th September 2023, where the rainfall exceeded 158 millimetres per hour, making it the heaviest rainfall Hong Kong has experienced since 1884.

Heavy rainfall can often lead to landslides because of multiple reasons. When heavy rain occurs, the rainwater infiltrates the spaces between the soil, reducing friction between particles and allowing them to move past each other easily. Water also makes the soil heavier and more difficult for the slope to hold, resulting in a landslide.

Another reason why landslides often occur in Hong Kong is because of the granite mountains. Majority of Hong Kong’s mountains are granite, and contain feldspar, which rots in humidity. As Hong Kong is an extremely humid place, over millions of years, the feldspar within the granite structures have been slowly rotting away, leaving a layer of feldspar on top of the mountains.

When heavy rain occurs, the layer of feldspar will absorb the rainwater, but because the granite is impermeable, it will not. This results in a heavy layer of feldspar weighing down on the granite rocks, which could then collapse and cause a landslide.

Judging panel comments

A compelling, albeit slightly tilted image, that engages the eye to follow the line of the collapsed material to the debris in the road and remind us how spectacular and disruptive (to humans) the mobile Earth can be when triggered in an instant.

The title could be more captivating. The accompanying caption sets the climatic context that is so important in many sudden mass movements, and there is good explanation of granular saturation leading to loss of cohesion and shear strength (a term that would have been useful to include) triggering mass movement.

The granite story is less clear. Mentioning poor infiltration and ‘rotting’ (chemical weathering) to produce a regolith (another good term to use) is accurate, but this process turns the feldspar into clay minerals, and it is these that absorb water and make the regolith overload and slide – it is not the granite rock that collapses – although as the photograph shows the regolith contains large boulders of granite not yet weathered, and these are made mobile. Reference to how these processes are reflected in the photo would have been more instructive.

Nevertheless this is a well-observed and explained example of mobile Earth in a tropical region and merits a well-deserved place in the winners.

3rd prize: Jess Claridge Law, Cowes Enterprise College

Title: Rainbow cliffs of Alum Bay

Jess’ description

Location: Alum Bay, Isle of Wight

Fortunate as one of my local beaches, the colourful cliffs of Alum Bay host evidence of chemical and weathering processes. The cliffs are hidden below 185 of the steepest steps, or a ride on the chairlift! 70 million years ago the seabed depleted below sea level, leading to the deposition of clays and sands.

10 million years ago, sea levels declined and fossil cliffs were created. Limestone cliffs in their pure state are viewed as grey-white, seen in the headland at the back of the image. However, oxidation occurred to the left, producing cliffs rich in Feldspar and Quartz. The vibrant yellow and orange and fiery pink and red coloured sands of Alum Bay, shown in the photo.

When I visited Alum Bay, there was hazard tape across the foot of the cliff, indicating that the cliff is mobile; large scale mass movement could occur at any moment. For example, the coloured cliffs show jointing, where the base of the cliff is subjected to immense pressure from above rock.

There is also evidence of slumping in the centre. This may have occurred due to rainfall permeating through the sedimentary rock, creating a slip plane. The rock became destabilised and slumping occurred.

Alum Bay is a great example of our ‘Mobile Earth’, operating as a feedback loop. There’s positive feedback where the cliffs have slumped, however negative feedback has also occured, where previous collapsed material; talus, is abrased by the Solent Channel’s waves into beach sediment to protect the cliff base.

Judging Panel Comments

This is a good example of an opportune photo, capturing the ‘magic tape’ that cordons off access to the contrastingly coloured sedimentary rocks for which this location is famous and which lends an inherent attractiveness to the photo. As such, it is a very good illustration of the theme – mobile Earth.

The caption gets to this point eventually but initially rambles too much on the colours and their origin of the sediments – a shorter note mentioning iron-cemented sandstones and the clays would provide more relevant focus (different iron oxides create the colours).

The process suggesting how mass movement is occurring doesn’t always match up to what can be observed in the photo. The jointing  – the cracks observed in the green strata in the foreground – are widening to create blocks.

The steep profile of the cliffs in the mid and foreground point to cliff collapse by block topple/fall and disintegration, rather than slumping (topple is a sudden and unpredictable mass movement, hence the need to cordon off). However the lower angled profile of the grey mass of London Clay, in front of the white chalk cliffs, does suggests slumping occurs in that material.

There is little talus at the foot of the sands, but the beach may play a role in reducing wave energy reaching the cliffs. More systematic and organised observation would provide for greater validity, a succinct explanation and perhaps a title relating to collapse and cordon, but the general principle and its link to mobile Earth is recognised.

The judges enjoyed this photo as a good observational opportunity that links to the theme of mobile Earth with a meritable attempt to explain, which we hope our comments will help you improve.

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