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Aletsch glacier, Switzerland
Aletsch glacier, Switzerland

A glacier is a large, long-lasting river of ice that is formed on land and moves in response to gravity. A glacier is formed by multi-year ice accretion in sloping terrain. Glacier ice is the largest reservoir of freshwater on Earth, and second only to oceans as the largest reservoir of total water. Glaciers can be found on every continent except Australia.

Geologic features associated with glaciers include end, lateral, ground and medial moraines that form from glacially transported rocks and debris; U-shaped valleys and corries ( cirques) at their heads, and the glacier fringe, which is the area where the glacier has recently melted into water.

Types of glaciers

Mouth of the glacier Schlatenkees near Innergschlöß, Austria.
Mouth of the glacier Schlatenkees near Innergschlöß, Austria.

There are two main types of glaciers: alpine glaciers, which are found in mountain terrains, and continental glaciers, which are associated with ice ages and can cover large areas of continents. Most of the concepts in this article apply equally to alpine glaciers and continental glaciers.

A temperate glacier is at the melting point throughout the year with internal and basal water. Polar glaciers are always below the freezing point with most mass loss due to sublimation. "Poly-thermal" or "sub-polar" glaciers have some internal drainage, but little to no basal melt. Thermal classifications vary so glacier zones are often used to identify melt conditions. The dry snow zone is a region where no melt occurs, even in the summer. The percolation zone is an area with some surface melt, often this zone is marked by refrozen ice lenses, glands, and layers. The wet snow zone is the region where all of the snow deposited since the end of the previous summer has been raised to 0 degrees. The superimposed ice zone is a zone of such high melt and refreeze that ice lenses have merged to a continous mass.

The smallest alpine glaciers form in mountain valleys and are referred to as valley glaciers. Larger ice layers can cover an entire mountain, mountain chain or even a volcano; this type is known as an ice cap. Ice caps feed outlet glaciers, tongues of ice that extend into valleys below, far from the margins of those larger ice masses. Outlet glaciers are formed by the movement of ice from a polar ice cap, or an ice cap from mountainous regions, to the sea.

The largest glaciers are continental ice sheets, enormous masses of ice that are not affected by the landscape and extend over the entire surface, except on the margins, where they are thinnest. Antarctica and Greenland are the only places where continental ice sheets currently exist. These regions contain vast quantities of fresh water. The volume of ice is so large that if the Greenland ice sheet melted, it would cause sea levels to rise some six meters all around the world. If the Antarctic ice sheet melted, sea levels would rise up to 65 meters.

Plateau glaciers resemble ice sheets, but on a smaller scale. They cover some plateaus and high-altitude areas. This type of glacier appears in many places, especially in Iceland and some of the large islands in the Arctic Ocean, and throughout the northern Pacific Cordillera from southern British Columbia to western Alaska.

Tidewater glaciers are glaciers that flow into the sea. As the ice reaches the sea pieces break off, or calve, forming icebergs. Most tidewater glaciers calve above sea level, which often results in a tremendous splash as the iceberg strikes the water. If the water is deep, glaciers can calve underwater, causing the iceberg to suddenly explode up out of the water. The Hubbard Glacier is the longest tidewater glacier in Alaska and has a calving face over ten kilometers long. Yakutat Bay and Glacier Bay are both popular with cruise ship passengers because of the huge glaciers descending to them.

Piedmont glaciers occupy broad lowlands at the base of steep mountains, and form when one or more alpine glaciers surge from the confining walls of mountain valleys. The size of piedmont glaciers varies greatly: among the largest is the Malaspina Glacier, which extends along the length of the southern coast of Alaska. It covers more than 5,000 km² of the coastal plain at the foot of the Saint Elias range. And it is only a part of the much bigger Kluane Icecap, which spans the Mount St. Elias and Chugach groups of mountain ranges all the way from the Malaspina Glacier to the Copper River and well into the southwestern Yukon, as well as southeast from the Malaspina towards the Iskut River in British Columbia.

The highest alpine glacier in the world is the Siachen Glacier, which is also a zone of political conflict between India and Pakistan.

Formation of glaciers

Formation of glacial ice
Formation of glacial ice

The snow which forms glaciers is subject to repeated freezing and thawing, which changes it into a form of granular ice called névé. Under the pressure of the layers of ice and snow above it, this granular ice fuses into denser firn. Over a period of years, layers of firn undergo further compaction and become glacial ice. Glacial ice contains minute air bubbles as a result, giving it a distinctive blue tint due to Rayleigh scattering.

The lower layers of glacial ice flow and deform plastically under the pressure, allowing the glacier as a whole to move slowly like a viscous fluid. Glaciers do not need a slope to flow, being driven by the continuing accumulation of new snow at their source. The upper layers of glaciers are more brittle, and often form deep cracks known as crevasses or Bergshrunds as they flex. These crevasses make unprotected travel over glaciers extremely hazardous. Glacial meltwaters flow throughout and underneath glaciers, carving channels in the ice similar to caves in rock and also helping to lubricate the glacier's movement.

Anatomy of a glacier

The Upper Grindelwald Glacier and the Schreckhorn, showing accumulation and ablation zones
The Upper Grindelwald Glacier and the Schreckhorn, showing accumulation and ablation zones

The upper part of a glacier that receives most of the snowfall is called the accumulation zone. As a rule of thumb, the accumulation zone accounts for 60-70% of the glacier's surface area. The depth of ice in the accumulation zone exerts a downward force sufficient to cause deep erosion of the rock in this area. After the glacier is gone, this often leaves a bowl or amphitheater-shaped depression called a cirque.

On the opposite end of the glacier, at its foot or terminal, is the deposition or ablation zone, where more ice is lost through melting than gained from snowfall and sediment is deposited. The place where the glacier thins to nothing is called the ice front.

The altitude where the two zones meet is called the equilibrium line. At this altitude, the amount of new snow gained by accumulation is equal to the amount of ice lost through ablation. The downward erosive forces of the accumulation zone and the tendency of the ablation zone to deposit sediment also cancel each other out. Erosive lateral forces are not canceled; therefore, glaciers turn v-shaped river-carved valleys into u-shaped glacial valleys.

The "health" of a glacier is defined by the area of the accumulation zone compared to the ablation zone. Healthy glaciers have large accumulation zones. Several non-linear relationships define the relation between accumulation and ablation.

In the aftermath of the Little Ice Age, about 1850, the glaciers of the Earth have retreated substantially. Glacier retreat has accelerated since about 1980 and is correlated with global warming. [1]

Even in very cold climates, there may be unglaciated areas, which receive too little precipitation to form permanent ice. This was the case in most of Siberia, central and northern Alaska and all of Manchuria during glacial periods of the Quaternary, and occurs today in Antarctica's Dry Valleys and in that part of the Andes between 19°S and 27°S above the hyperarid Atacama Desert where, although the mountains reach 6700 metres above sea level, the cold Humboldt Current completely suppresses precipitation.

Glacial motion

Perito-Moreno Glacier, showing cracks in brittle upper layer
Perito-Moreno Glacier, showing cracks in brittle upper layer

Ice behaves like an easily breaking solid until its thickness exceeds about 50 meters (160 ft). Below that depth the increased pressure causes ice to become plastic and flow. The glacial ice is made up of layers of molecules stacked on top of each other, with relatively weak bonds between the layers. When the stress exceeds the inter-layer binding strength, the layers start to slide past each other.

Another type of movement is basal gliding. In this process, the whole glacier moves over the terrain on which it sits, lubricated by meltwater. As the pressure increases toward the base of the glacier, the melting point of water decreases, and the ice melts. Friction between ice and rock and geothermal heat from the Earth's interior also contribute to thawing. This type of movement is dominant in temperate glaciers.

The top 50 meters of the glacier are more rigid. In this section, known as the fracture zone, there are no layers which slide past each other; instead the ice mostly moves as a single unit. Ice in the fracture zone moves over the top of the lower section. When the glacier moves through irregular terrain, cracks form in the fracture zone. These cracks can be up to 50 meters deep, at which point they meet the plastic flow underneath that seals them.

Speed of glacial movement

The speed of glacial displacement is partly determined by friction. Friction makes the ice at the bottom of the glacier move slower than the upper portion. In alpine glaciers, friction is also generated at the valley's side walls, which slows the edges relative to the center. This has been confirmed by experiments in the 19th century, in which stakes were planted in a line across an alpine glacier, and as time passed, those in the center moved further.

Mean speeds vary; some have speeds so slow that trees can establish themselves among the deposited scourings. In other cases they can move as fast as many meters per day, as is the case of Byrd Glacier, an overflowing glacier in Antarctica which moves 750-800 meters per year (some 2 meters (6 ft) per day), according to studies using satellites.

Many glaciers have periods of very rapid advancement called surges. [2] These glaciers exhibit normal movement until suddenly they accelerate, then return to their previous state. During these surges, the glacier may reach velocities up to 1000 times greater than normal.


Glacial moraines are formed by the deposition of material from a glacier and are exposed after the glacier has retreated. These features usually appear as linear mounds of till, a poorly-sorted mixture of rock, gravel and boulders within a matrix of a fine powdery material. Terminal or end moraines are formed at the foot or terminal end of a glacier, lateral moraines are formed on the sides of the glacier, and medial moraines are formed down the center. Less obvious is the ground moraine, also called glacial drift, which often blankets the surface underneath much of the glacier downslope from the equilibrium line. Glacial meltwaters contain rock flour, an extremely fine powder ground from the underlying rock by the glacier's movement. Other features formed by glacial deposition include long snake-like ridges formed by streambeds under glaciers, known as eskers, and distinctive streamlined hills, known as drumlins.

Stoss-and-lee erosional features are formed by glaciers and show the direction of their movement. Long linear rock scratches (that follow the glacier's direction of movement) are called glacial striations, and divots in the rock are called chatter marks. Both of these features are left on the surfaces of stationary rock that were once under a glacier and were formed when loose rocks and boulders in the ice were transported over the rock surface. Transport of fine-grained material within a glacier can smooth or polish the surface of rocks, leading to glacial polish. Glacial erratics are rounded boulders that were left by a melting glacier and are often seen perched precariously on exposed rock faces after glacial retreat.

The most common name for glacial sediment is moraine. The term is of French origin, and it was coined by peasants to describe alluvial embankments and rims found near the margins of glaciers in the French Alps. Currently, the term is used more broadly, and is applied to a series of formations, all of which are composed of till.


A drumlin field forms after a glacier has modified the landscape. The tear-drop-shaped formations denote the direction of the ice flow.
A drumlin field forms after a glacier has modified the landscape. The tear-drop-shaped formations denote the direction of the ice flow.

Drumlins are asymmetrical hills with aerodynamic profiles made mainly of till. Their heights vary from 15 to 50 meters and they can reach a kilometer in length. The tilted side of the hill looks toward the direction from which the ice advanced (stoss), while the longer slope follows the ice's direction of movement (lee).

Drumlins are found in groups called drumlin fields or drumlin camps. An example of these fields is found east of Rochester, New York, and it is estimated that it contains about 10,000 drumlins.

Although the process that forms drumlins is not fully understood, it can be inferred from their shape that they are products of the plastic deformation zone of ancient glaciers. It is believed that many drumlins were formed when glaciers advanced over and altered the deposits of earlier glaciers.

Glacial erosion

Rocks and sediments are added to glaciers through various processes. Glaciers erode the terrain principally through two methods: scouring and plucking.

Diagram of glacial plucking and abrasion
Diagram of glacial plucking and abrasion

As the glacier flows over the bedrock's fractured surface, it softens and lifts blocks of rock that are brought into the ice. This process is known as plucking, and it is produced when subglacial water penetrates the fractures and the subsequent freezing expansion separates them from the bedrock. When the water expands, it acts as a lever that loosens the rock by lifting it. This way, sediments of all sizes become part of the glacier's load.

Abrasion occurs when the ice and the load of rock fragments slide over the bedrock and function as sandpaper that smoothens and polishes the surface situated below. This pulverized rock is called rock flour. This flour is formed by rock grains of a size between 0.002 and 0.00625 mm. Sometimes the amount of rock flour produced is so high that currents of meltwaters acquire a grayish colour.

Another of the visible characteristics of glacial erosion are glacial striations. These are produced when the bottom's ice contains large chunks of rock that mark trenches in the bedrock. By mapping the direction of the flutes the direction of the glacier's movement can be determined.

The velocity of a glacier's erosion is variable. The differential erosion undertaken by the ice is controlled by four important factors:

  • Velocity of glacial movement
  • Thickness of the ice
  • Shape, abundance and hardness of rock fragments contained in the ice at the bottom of the glacier
  • Relative ease of erosion of the surface under the glacier.

Material that becomes incorporated in a glacier are typically carried as far as the zone of ablation before being deposited. Glacial deposits are of two distinct types:

  • Glacial till: material directly deposited from glacial ice. Till includes a mixture of undifferentiated material ranging from clay size to boulders, the usual composition of a moraine.
  • Fluvial and outwash: sediments deposited by water. These deposits are stratified through various processes, such as boulders being separated from finer particles.

The larger pieces of rock which are encrusted in till or deposited on the surface are called glacial erratics. They may range in size from pebbles to boulders, but as they may be moved great distances they may be of drastically different type than the material upon which they are found. Patterns of glacial erratics provide clues of past glacial motions.

Glacial valleys

A glaciated valley in the Mount Hood Wilderness showing the characteristic U-shape and flat bottom.
A glaciated valley in the Mount Hood Wilderness showing the characteristic U-shape and flat bottom.
This image shows the termini of the glaciers in the Bhutan-Himalaya. Glacial lakes have been rapidly forming on the surface of the debris-covered glaciers in this region during the last few decades.
This image shows the termini of the glaciers in the Bhutan- Himalaya. Glacial lakes have been rapidly forming on the surface of the debris-covered glaciers in this region during the last few decades.

Before glaciation, mountain valleys have a characteristic "V" shape, produced by downward erosion by water. However, during glaciation, these valleys widen and deepen, which creates a "U"-shaped glacial valley. Besides the deepening and widening of the valley, the glacier also smoothes the valley due to erosion. This way, it eliminates the spurs of earth that extend across the valley. Because of this interaction, triangular cliffs called truncated spurs are formed.

Many glaciers deepen their valleys more than their smaller tributaries. Therefore, when the glaciers stop receding, the valleys of the tributary glaciers remain above the main glacier's depression, and these are called hanging valley.

In parts of the soil that were affected by abrasion and plucking, the depressions left can be filled by paternoster lakes, from the Latin for "Our Father", referring to a station of the rosary.

At the head of a glacier is the corrie, which has a bowl shape with escarped walls on three sides, but open on the side that descends into the valley. In the corrie, an accumulation of ice is formed. These begin as irregularities on the side of the mountain, which are later augmented in size by the coining of the ice. After the glacier melts, these corries are usually occupied by small mountain lakes called tarns.

There may be two glaciers separated by a diving ridge. This, located between the corries, is eroded to create an arête. This structure may result in a mountain pass.

Glaciers are also responsible for the creation of fjords (deep coves or inlets) and escarpments that are found at high latitudes. With depths that can exceed 1,000 metres caused by the postglacial elevation of sea level and therefore, as it changed the glaciers changed their level of erosion.

Features of a glacial landscape
Features of a glacial landscape

Arêtes and horns

An arête is a narrow crest with a sharp edge. Pointed pyramidal peaks are called horns.

Both features may have the same process behind their formation: the enlargement of cirques from glacial plucking and the action of the ice. Horns are formed by cirques that encircle a single mountain.

Arêtes emerge in a similar manner; the only difference is that the cirques are not located in a circle, but rather on opposite sides along a divide. Arêtes can also be produced by the collision of two parallel glaciers. In this case, the glacial tongues cut the divides down to size through erosion, and polish the adjacent valleys.

Sheepback rock

Some rock formations in the path of a glacier are sculpted into small hills with a shape known as roche moutonnée or sheepback. An elongated, rounded, asymmetrical, bedrock knob produced can be produced by glacier erosion. It has a gentle slope on its up-glacier side and a steep to vertical face on the down-glacier side. The glacier abrades the smooth slope that it flows along, while rock is torn loose from the downstream side and carried away in ice. Rock on this side is fractured by combinations of forces due to water, ice in rock cracks, and structural stresses.

Alluvial stratification

The water that rises from the zone of ablation moves away from the glacier and carries with it fine eroded sediments. As the speed of the water decreases, so does its capacity to carry objects in suspension. The water then gradually deposits the sediment as it runs, creating an alluvial plain. When this phenomenon occurs in a valley, it is called a valley train.

Landscape produced by a receding glacier
Landscape produced by a receding glacier

Alluvial plains and valley trains are usually accompanied by basins known as kettles. Glacial depressions are also produced in till deposits. These depressions are formed when large ice blocks are stuck in the glacial alluvium and after melting, they leave holes in the sediment.

Generally, the diameter of these depressions does not exceed 2 km, except in Minnesota, where some depressions reach up to 50 km in diameter, with depths varying between 10 and 50 meters.

Deposits in contact with ice

When a glacier reduces in size to a critical point, its flow stops, and the ice becomes stationary. Meanwhile, meltwater flows over, within, and beneath the ice leave stratified alluvial deposits. Because of this, as the ice melts, it leaves stratified deposits in the form of columns, terraces and clusters. These types of deposits are known as deposits in contact with ice.

When those deposits take the form of columns of tipped sides or mounds, which are called kames. Some kames form when meltwater deposits sediments through openings in the interior of the ice. In other cases, they are just the result of fans or deltas towards the exterior of the ice produced by meltwater.

When the glacial ice occupies a valley it can form terraces or kame along the sides of the valley.

A third type of deposit formed in contact with the ice is characterized by long, narrow sinuous crests composed fundamentally of sand and gravel deposite by streams of meltwater flowing within, beneath or on the glacier ice. After the ice has melted these linear ridges or eskers remain as landscape features. Some of these crests have heights exceeding 100 meters and their lengths surpass 100 km.

Loess deposits

Very fine glacial sediments or rock flour is often picked up by wind blowing over the bare surface and may be deposited great distances from the original fluvial deposition site. These eolian loess deposits may be very deep, even hundreds of meters, as in areas of China and the midwestern United States.

Isostatic rebound

Isostatic pressure by a glacier on the Earth's crust
Isostatic pressure by a glacier on the Earth's crust

This rise of a part of the crust is due to an isostatic adjustment. A large mass, such as a glacier, depresses the Earth's crust. After the glacier melts, the crust begins to rise to its original position. This is post-glacial rebound and is currently occurring in measurable amounts in Scandinavia and the Great Lakes region of the United States.

Ice ages

Main article: Ice age.

Ice age divisions

A quadruple division of the Quaternary glacial period has been established for North America and Europe. These divisions are based principally on the study of glacial deposits. In North America, each of these four stages was named for the state in which the deposits of these stages were well exposed. In order of appearance, they are the following: Nebraskan, Kansan, Illinoisan, and Wisconsinan. This classification was refined thanks to the detailed study of the sediments of the ocean floor. Because the sediments of the ocean floor, in contrast to that of the Earth's surface, are less affected by stratigraphic discontinuities, they are useful to determine the climatic cycles of the planet.

In this matter, geologists have come to identify over twenty divisions, each of them lasting approximately 100,000 years. All these cycles fall within the Quaternary glacial period.

During its peak, the ice left its mark over almost 30% of Earth's surface, covering approximately 10 million km2 in North America, 5 million km2 in Europe and 4 million km² in Siberia. The glacial ice in the Northern hemisphere was double that found in the Southern hemisphere. This is because southern polar ice cannot advance beyond the Antarctic landmass. It is now believed that the most recent glacial period began between two and three million years ago, in the Pleistocene era.

Causes of ice ages

Little is known about the causes of glaciations.

Generalized glaciations have been rare in the history of Earth. However, the Ice Age of the Pleistocene was not the only glaciative event, since tillite deposits have been identified. Tillite is a sedimentary rock formed when glacial till is lithified.

These deposits found in strata of differing age present similar characteristics as fragments of fluted rock, and some are superposed over bedrock surfaces of channeled and polished rock or associated with sandstone and conglomerates that have features of alluvial plain deposits.

Two Precambrian glacial episodes have been identified, the first approximately 2 billion years ago, and the second (Snowball Earth) about 600 million years. Also, a well documented record of glaciation exists in rocks of the late Paleozoic (of 250 million years of age).

Although there are several scientific hypotheses about the determining factors of glaciations, the two most important ideas are plate tectonics and variations in Earth's orbit ( Milankovitch cycles).

Plate tectonics

Because glaciers can form only on dry land, plate tectonics suggest that the evidence of previous glaciations is currently present in tropical latitudes due to the drift of tectonic plates from tropical latitudes to circumpolar regions. Evidence of glacial structures in South America, Africa, Australia, and India support this idea, because it is known that they experienced a glacial period near the end of the Paleozoic Era, some 250 million years ago.

The idea that the evidence of middle-latitude glaciations is closely related to the displacement of tectonic plates was confirmed by the absence of glacial traces in the same period for the higher latitudes of North America and Eurasia, which indicates that their locations were very different than today.

Climatic changes are also related to the positions of the continents, which has made them vary in conjunction with the displacement of plates. That also affected ocean current patterns, which caused changes in heat transmission and humidity. Since continents drift very slowly (about 2 cm per year), similar changes occur in periods of millions of years.

A study of marine sediment that contained climatically sensitive microorganisms until about half a million years ago were compared with studies of the geometry of Earth's orbit, and the result was clear: climatic changes are closely related to periods of obliquity, precession, and eccentricity of the Earth's orbit.

In general it can be affirmed that plate tectonics is only applicable to very long periods of time, while Milankovitch's proposal, backed up by the work of others, adjusts to the periodic alterations of glacial periods of the Pleistocene. These proposals are subject to uncertainty and there may be other factors involved with glaciers.

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