The High Atlas mountain range extends across much of southern Morocco, representing the intersection between Saharan and Atlantic climatic influences. Snow covers much of the range between late autumn and early spring months, while summer temperatures reach the high twenties. Vegetation is typical of that found in other Mediterranean mountain ranges, and the landscape can be characterised by steep rocky valleys and large open plateaus.

Village of Imlil in the Arroumd Valley.

Some parts of the range were once described as: “arid, inhospitable terrain dominated by barren rock and sparse vegetation cover” (Lamb, 1994, p.148). However, the High Atlas has been occupied by people for centuries who worked the land for agriculture. Today, the High Atlas is an important water source for Morocco, largely fed by melting snow and ice.

The importance of the High Atlas for water storage in the present, and the past, cannot be understated as it may have played a pivotal role in supporting human development in the region.

Water storage in the High Atlas.

To date, the glacial history of the area for the current interglacial period (the Holocene, ~12,000 years ago to present) remains poorly known, despite widespread geomorphological evidence of glaciation during the Late Pleistocene (~126,000 to ~12,000 years ago). However, geomorphic evidence suggests there were episodes of glacial activity during the Holocene, although timing has not been confirmed. Glacial activity during this period could have had implications for human activity as well as effects on natural ecosystems and landscape development.

Map of Morocco showing the mountain ranges.

Project aims and outcomes

This project aims to evaluate the role of Holocene glaciers as “water towers” of the High Atlas, their sensitivity to changing climate, and their influence on ecosystems and human activity. A multi-disciplinary approach will build upon geomorphological and geochronological evidence, along with palaeoecological data and glacier and climate modelling to explore glacier activity – and its implications across the High Atlas.

We will test the following hypotheses:

  1. Cooling events in the Northern hemisphere during the Late Holocene resulted in lower temperatures and increased moisture-bearing winter westerlies to the High Atlas, leading to increased snowpack and glacial expansion.

  2. Glacier expansion contributed to wetter conditions during the year, promoting the development of alpine wetlands and increasing the productivity of alpine pastures.

  3. The increased productivity of these ecosystems allowed for the expansion and intensification of agricultural activity, supporting development of southern Moroccan society.

This research will provide new insights into the interaction between glacier dynamics, human activity and ecosystem change in the region including: Constraining the timing and distribution of Holocene glaciers in the High Atlas, and; Improving our understanding of vegetation history, fire regimes and impact from grazing on the development of ecosystems. In addition, glacial-climate modelling will improve future predictions of snowpack dynamics in response to climate change scenarios.


This website is part of a Leverhulme Trust funded research project: "Holocene glacier dynamics and environmental change in the High Atlas, Morocco", at The University of Manchester, in partnership with ANSTO.

Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grants 2018

ANSTO Press Release