14 Glaciers

The valley is circular and filled with a lake.
Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana is an example of a glacially-carved cirque.

14 Glaciers


At the end of this chapter, students should be able to:

  • Differentiate the different types of glaciers and contrast them with sea ice.
  • Describe how glaciers move, erode, and create landforms.
  • Identify glacial erosional and depositional landforms and interpret their origin.
  • Describe the history and causes of past glaciations and their relationship to climate and sea-level changes.

The hydrosphere, liquid water, is the single most important agent of erosion and deposition. The cryosphere, the solid state of water in the form of ice also has its own unique erosional and depositional features. Large accumulations of year-round ice on the land surface are called glaciers. Masses of ice floating on the ocean as sea ice or icebergs are not glaciers.

Glaciers make up about 10% of the surface of the Earth, and are powerful erosional agents that sculpt the planet’s surface. Glaciers form when snow accumulates over a long span of time that eventually turns into ice. This usually occurs in mountainous areas that have both cold temperatures and high precipitation. But snow can also accumulate and turn into ice in extremely cold low lying areas such as Greenland and Antarctica. This subchapter focuses on how types of glaciers, how glaciers function, erosional and depositional landforms created by glaciers, and how glaciers are connected to past climates and modern day climate change.

14.1 Types of Glaciers

Glacier in the Bernese Alps. A thick sheet of ice filling an alpine valley with lines of sediment (medial moraine).
Glacier in the Bernese Alps.

There are two general types of glaciersalpine glaciers and ice sheets. Alpine glaciers form in mountainous areas either at high elevations or near cool and wet coastal areas. A common type of alpine glacier is a valley glacier which is confined to a long, narrow valley located in mountainous areas especially at higher latitudes (closer to either the north or south pole). Most alpine glaciers are located in the major mountain ranges of the world such as the Andes, Rockies, Alps, and Himalayas.

Greenland ice sheet.
Greenland ice sheet.

The other major glacier type are ice sheets (also called a continental glaciers). These are thick accumulations of ice that occupy a large geographical area. The main ice sheets on the earth today are located on Greenland and Antarctica. The Greenland Ice Sheet has an extensive surface area and thickness up to 3,300 meters (10,800 feet or two miles) and has a volume estimated at nearly 3 million cubic kilometers (~102 billion cubic feet) .

The Antarctic Ice Sheet is much larger and covers almost the entire continent. The thickest parts of this massive ice sheet are over 4,000 meters thick (>13,000 feet or 2.5 miles) The Antarctic Ice Sheet has the majority of ice as illustrated by the figure comparing a cross-sectional view of both ice sheets.

Former ice sheets, present during the last glacial maximum event (also know as the last ice age) in North America, are called the Laurentide Ice Sheet.

Map showing maximum thickness of Greenland ice sheet around 3000 meters.
Thickness of Greenland ice sheet in meters (Source: Eric Gaba).

Shows extent of last ice age with glacier covering most of Canada and some of the northern U.S. including Alaska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Great Lakes, and parts of other states.
Maximum extent of Laurentide Ice Sheet
Cross-sectional view showing that the Antarctica ice sheet is much larger than the Greenland ice sheet (Source: Steve Earle).
Cross-sectional view of both Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets drawn to scale for size comparison (Source: Steve Earle)

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14.2 Glacier Formation and Movement

Glaciers form by accumulating snow that eventually compresses into firn and eventually into ice. In some cases, perennial snow accumulates on the ground and lasts all year. This makes a snow field and not a glacier since it is a thin accumulation of snow. Snow and glacial ice actually has a fair amount of void space (porosity) that traps air. As the snow settles, compacts, and bonds with underlying snow, the amount of void space diminishes. When the snow gets buried by more snow, it compacts into granular firn (or névé) further with less air and it begins to resemble ice more than snow. Continual melting and refreezing make the firn more dense and ice like. Eventually, the accumulated snow turns fully to ice, however, small air pockets remain trapped in the ice and become a record of the past atmosphere.

Deep cracks in the surface of glacial ice
Glacial crevasses.

Cravasse on the Easton Glacier in the North Cascades
Cravasse on the Easton Glacier in the North Cascades

As the ice accumulates it begins to flow downward under its own weight. An early study of glacier movement conducted in 1948 on the Jungfraufirn glacier in the Alps installed hollow vertical rods in the ice and measured the tilt over two years. The study found that the top part was fairly rigid and the bottom part flowed internally. About half of the overall glacial movement was from sliding along the bedrock surface and half from internal flow . These studies show that the ice near the surface (about the upper 165 feet [50 meters] depending on location, temperature, and flow rate) is rigid and brittle . This upper zone is the brittle zone, the portion of the ice in which ice breaks when it moves forming large cracks along the top of a glacier called crevasses. These crevasses can be covered and hidden by a snow bridge and thus can be hazard for glacier travelers.

Cross-section of a glacier shows upper part of the glacier moving en masse and breaking in a brittle fashion while the lower part flows ductiley.
Cross-section of a valley glacier showing stress (red numbers) increase with depth under the ice. The ice will deform and flow where the stress is greater than 100 kilopascals, and the relative extent of that deformation is depicted by the red arrows. Down slope movement is shown with blue arrows. The upper ice above the red dashed line does not flow but is pushed along en masse. (Source: Steve Earle)

Below the brittle zone, there is so much weight of the overlying ice that it no longer breaks when force is applied to it but rather it bends or flows. This is the plastic zone and ice flows within this zone. This represents the great majority of the ice of a glacier and often contains a fair amount of sediment from as large as boulders and as small as silt and clay which act as grinding agents. The bottom of the plastic zone grinds across the bedrock surface and represents the zone of erosion.

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14.3 Glacial Budget

A glacier flows downhill as a thick sheet of ice. Cross-sectional view of an alpine glacier showing internal flow lines, zone of accumulation, snow line, and zone of melting.
Cross-sectional view of an alpine glacier showing internal flow lines, zone of accumulation, snow line, and zone of melting.

Glaciers gain mass during the winter as snow accumulates. During summer the snow melts. The glacier is like a bank account, if more money is coming in (snow accumulating in winter) than going out (snow melting in summer), then the bank account grows. The glacial budget works in a similar way. The glacial budget describes how ice accumulates and melts on a glacier which ultimately determines whether a glacier advances or retreats. The balance of accumulating ice (zone of accumulation) is weighted against melting ice (zone of melting or zone of ablation), and which ever is faster determines whether the glacier will advance or retreat. In the zone of accumulation, the rate of snowfall is greater than the rate of melting. In other words, not all of the snow that falls each winter melts during the following summer, and the ice surface is always covered with snow. In the zone of melting, more ice melts then accumulates as snow. The equilibrium line (or snowline) marks the boundary between the zones of accumulation and ablation. Below the equilibrium line, in the zone of melting, bare ice is exposed because last winter’s snow has all melted; above that line, the ice is still mostly covered with snow from last winter. The position of the equilibrium line changes from year to year as a function of the balance between snow accumulation in the winter and snowmelt during the summer. More winter snow and less summer melting obviously favors the advance of the equilibrium line (and of the glacier’s leading edge), but of these two variables, it is the summer melt that matters most to a glacier’s budget. Cool summers promote glacial advance and warm summers promote glacial retreat .

Water-filled valley with steep side walls.
If warmers summers promote glacial retreat, then overall climate warming over many decades and centuries causes glacier to melt and retreat significantly. Since global climate has been warming due to humans burning fossil fuels , this warming is likely causing the ice sheets to melt (or lose mass) at an increasing rate . This means that as time goes on, the glaciers have melted faster and contributed more to raising the sea-level than expected.

When ice sheets start to melt, such as those in Antarctica and Greenland, they increase their flow into the ocean, and they float on ocean water before breaking off in a process called calving. In these cases, the end of the glacier in the fjord may retreat but it will also lose thickness or deflate . A fjord is a narrow ocean-flooded valley with steep walls that was carved by a recent glacier. The retreating glacier or glaciers may add to sea level, and this added sea level can also add the the flooding of the former glacially-filled valleys. Glacial retreat and deflation is well illustrated in the 2009 TED Talk by James Balog.


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14.4 Glacial Landforms

Glacial landforms are grouped into erosional and depositional landforms. Erosional landforms are formed by removing material. The internal movement of glacial ice causes some melting and glaciers slide over bedrock on a thin film of water. Glacial ice also contain a large amount of sediment such as sand, gravel, and boulders. Together, the movement plucks off bedrock and grinds the bedrock producing a polished surface and a fine sediment called rock flour and other poorly-sorted sediments. Whereas depositional landforms are formed when the ice retreats and leaves behind these sediments with distinct shapes and compositions.

14.4.1 Erosional Glacial Landforms

Both alpine and continental glaciers erode bedrock and create erosional landforms. Glacier are heavy masses of abrasive ice that grind over the surface. Elongated grooves usually about ¼ inch wide (½ centimeter) are created by fragments of rock embedded in the ice at the base of a glacier scraping along the bedrock surface called glacial striations. In addition, fine grit in the ice can polish a hard granite or quartzite bedrock to a smooth surface called glacial polish. This diagram summarizes these glacial landforms.

Shiny, reflective rock with aligned grooves.
A polished and striated rock in Yosemite.

Smoothed polished rock with grooves abraded into them. All of the groves are aligned in the same direction.
Glacial striations in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Most  following is a description of erosional landforms produced by alpine glaciers. Since glaciers are much wider than rivers of similar length, and since they tend to erode more at their bases than their sides, they produce wide valleys with relatively flat bottoms and steep sides distinctive “U” shape . Little Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City, Utah was occupied by a large glacier that extended down to the mouth of the canyon and into Salt Lake Valley . Today, the canyon is the location of many erosional landforms including the U-shaped valley. In contrast, river-carved canyons have a V-shaped profile when cut in cross-section.

A valley with a u shape that shows steep cliffs on the sides and a wide-flat bottom
The U-shape of the Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, as it enters into the Salt Lake Valley.

Image animation showing ice moving through v-shaped valleys to make u-shaped valleys.
Formation of a glacial valley. Glaciers change the shape of the valley from a “V” shape to a “U”.

When two U-shaped valleys are adjacent to each other, they can create a sharp ridge called an arête. Since glaciers erode a broad valley, the arêtes are left behind with steep walls. At the head of a glacially carved valley is the point where the glacier is eroding a mountain. This creates a large bowl-shaped area called a cirque. As cirques grow wider over time, they create more pronounced arêtes and horns, which is a steep-sided, spire-shaped mountain with pronounced cirques on three or more sides. Low points along arêtes or between horns (that are also mountain passes) are called cols. When a smaller tributary glacier intersects a larger trunk glacier, the smaller glacier erodes down less. Therefore, once the ice has been removed, the tributary valley is not as deep and the intersection point of where the tributary glacier met the trunk glacier is characterized by a steep headwall, sometimes with a waterfall. This is steep area is called a hanging valley. Further, when the trunk glacier erodes an arête, it can produce truncated spurs which tend to be steep triangle-shaped cliffs.

A circular area near the top of a mountain that looks as if it had been scooped out.
Cirque with Upper Thornton Lake in the North Cascades National Park, Washington. Photo by Walter Siegmund.

A large and very pointy (almost pyramid-like) mountain
An example of a horn, Kinnerly Peak, Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo by USGS.

U-shaped valley feeding into another, lower u-shaped valley. A waterfall forms where the higher valley meet the lower valley.
Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite National Park, California, is a good example of a hanging valley.

14.4.2 Depositional Glacial Landforms

Very large boulder, dark in color, with smaller boulders "floating" inside of it.
Boulder of diamictite of the Mineral Fork Formation, Antelope Island, Utah, United States.
Sediment is deposited by glaciers in both alpine and continental environments. Since ice is responsible for a large amount of erosion, there is a lot of sediment in glacial ice. When sediment is left behind by a melting glacier it is called till and it is characteristically poorly sorted with grain sizes ranging from clay and silt to subrounded pebbles and boulders. Many of the following landforms described in this section are composed of till. Lithified rocks of this type are sometimes referred to as tillites, though that implies an interpretation of glacial origin. A more objective and descriptive term is diamictite, meaning a rock of very different sizes. 

The most common depositional glacial landform is the moraine, which is an accumulation of glacial till created from the grinding and erosive effects of a glacier. The glacier acts like a conveyor belt, carrying sediment inside the ice and depositing it at the end and sides of the glacier. The moraines build even if the end of the glacier doesn’t advance. The type of moraines depends on its location. A terminal moraine is a ridge of unsorted till at the maximum extent of a glacier or the farthest extent of a glacier . When glaciers retreat in episodes, they leave behind additional deposits called recessional moraines. The recessional moraines look similar to terminal moraines, but are formed when the glacier retreat pauses. Moraines located along the side of a glacier are called lateral moraines and mostly represent material that fell on the sides of the glacier from mass wasting of the valley walls. When two tributary glaciers meet, the two lateral moraines combine to form a medial moraine. Behind the terminal and recessional moraines is a veneer (or thin sheet) of till is top of bedrock called the till sheet (or ground moraine).

Large linear hills composed of till, aligned with the "U" shaped mouths of canyons.
Lateral moraines of Little Cottonwood and Bell canyons, Utah.
Thick lines of sediment in the middle of the glacial ice.
Medial moraines.

In addition to moraines, as glaciers melt they leave behind a few depositional landforms. The intense grinding process creates a lot of silt. Streams of water melting from the glacier carry this silt (along with sand and gravel) and deposit it in front of the glacier in an area called an outwash plain or sandur. In addition, when glaciers retreat sometimes they leave behind large boulders of a type of rock that doesn’t match the local bedrock. These are called glacial erratics. When continental glaciers melt, large blocks of ice can be left behind to melt within the impermeable till and can create a depression called a kettle that can be filled with water as a kettle lake. Located under continental glaciers are streams of meltwater that carry sediment in a sinuous channel, similar to a river. When the ice recedes, the sediment will remain to form a long sinuous ridge known as an esker. Also common in continental glacial areas of New York state and Wisconsin are drumlins. A drumlin is an elongated hill that is asymmetric so that the steepest side points upstream into the ice and streamlined side (low angle side) points in the direction the ice is flowing. Drumlins can occur in great numbers in drumlin fields (Figure). The origin of drumlins is still debated and some leading ideas are incremental accumulation of till under the glacier, large catastrophic meltwater floods located under the glacier, and surface deformation by the weight of the overlying glacial ice .

14.4.3 Glacial Lakes

A mountainous area with a circular bowl filled with a lake.
Tarn in a cirque.
Lakes are common features in alpine glacial environments. A lake that is confined to a glacial cirque is known as a tarn such as Silver Lake near Brighton Ski resort located in Big Cottonwood Canyon or Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park. Tarns are common in areas of alpine glaciation because the ice that forms a cirque typically carves out a depression in bedrock that then fills with water. In some cases, moraines may cause a series of basins within a cirque (or similar) basin, and the resulting chain of lakes are called paternoster lakes. A lake that occupies a glacial valley, but is not confined to a cirque, is known as a finger lake. .

In areas of continental glaciation, the crust is depressed isostatically by crustal loading from the weight of thick glacial ice. Basins are formed along the edges of continental glaciers (except for those that cover entire continents like Antarctica and Greenland), and these basins fill with glacial meltwater forming proglacial lakes. The classic example of a proglacial lake is Lake Agassiz, located in mostly in Manitoba, Canada, with Lake Winnipeg serving as the remnant of the lake. Many such lakes, some of them huge, existed at various times along the southern edge of the Laurentide Ice Sheet.

Map showing a large lake covering the central part of Canada.
Extent of Lake Agassiz

Other proglacial lakes formed when glaciers dammed rivers causing the valley to be flooded. The classic example is Glacial Lake Missoula, which formed Idaho and Montana when the Clark Fork River was dammed by the ice sheet. During the latter part of the last glaciation about 18,000 years ago, the ice holding back Lake Missoula retreated enough to allow some of the lake water to start flowing out, which escalated into a massive and rapid outflow (over days to weeks) during which much of the volume of the lake drained along the valley of the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. It is estimated that this type of flooding happened at least 25 times over that span, and in many cases, the rate of outflow was equivalent to the discharge of all of Earth’s current rivers combined. The record of these massive floods is preserved in the Channelled Scablands of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon .

Map of the western United States during the Pleistocene showing several large lakes, one of the more notable is Lake Bonneville, which drained northwest to the Pacific ocean.
Pluvial lakes in the western United States

During the last glaciation, most of the western United States had a cooler and wetter climate. Due to less evaporation and more precipitation many large lakes formed in the basins such as the Basin and Range Province called pluvial lakes. Two of the largest pluvial lakes were Lake Bonneville and Lake Lahontan. Lake Bonneville occupied much of western Utah and eastern Nevada (Figure from Miller et al 2013) and filled Salt Lake Valley, which is densely urbanized today, with water hundreds of feet deep. During the last glaciation, the level of the lake fluctuated many times leaving several pronounced old shorelines in the western portion of Utah including Salt Lake Valley. Lake level peaked around 18,000 years ago and spilled over Red Rock Pass in Idaho causing rapid erosion and a very large flood that rapidly lowered the lake level and scoured land in Pocatello Valley, Snake River Plain, and Twin Falls Idaho. The flood was an incredible size with a discharge of about 4,750 km3 which is about the volume of Lake Michigan. This would be as if one of the Great Lakes completely emptied within days. Lake Lahontan existed about the same time mostly in northwestern Nevada.


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14.5 Glaciations

A glaciation (or ice age) is when the Earth’s climate is cold enough that large ice sheets grow on continents. There have been four major, well documented glaciations in Earth’s history: one during the Archean-early Proterozoic (~2.5 billion years ago), another in late Proterozoic (~700 million years ago), another in the Pennsylvanian (323 to 300 million years ago), and the most recent Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation (Chapter 15). A minor glaciation that occurred around 440 million years ago in modern-day Africa is also mentioned by some authors. The best studied glaciation is the most recent. The Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation is a series of many glacial cycles, possibly 18, during the last 2.5 million years. There is especially strong evidence for eight glacial advances within the last 420,000 years as recorded in the Antarctic ice core record (Figure). The last of these, known in popular media as “The Ice Age” but known by geologists as the last glacial maximum, reached its height between 26,500 and 19,000 years ago . This infographic illustrates the glacial and climate changes since the then.

14.5.1 Causes of Glaciations

Why do glaciations occur? The causes include both long-term and short-term factors. In the geologic sense, long-term means a scale of 10’s to 100’s of millions of years and short-term means a 100 to 200,000 year scale. Long-term causes of the some of the oldest glaciations include the location of continents near poles, and changes in ocean circulation such as the closing of the Panama Strait. Short-term factors are more applicable to the most recent Pliocene-Quaternary Glaciation and are most relevant to today’s anthropogenic climate change.

Short-term causes of glaciation are variations in Earth-Sun relations due to changes in the earth’s orbit called Milankovitch Cycles. These changes affect the amount of incoming solar radiation, and changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. During the Cenozoic, carbon dioxide levels have steadily decreased (Figure) causing a gradual climatic cooling . As the climate cooled, the effects of the Milankovitch Cycles began to influence climate with regular cycles of warming and cooling. Milankovitch Cycles are three orbital changes named after the Serbian astronomer Milutan Milankovitch. The three orbital changes are the wobbling of Earth’s axis called precession with a span of 21,000 years, the angle of Earth’s axis called obliquity with a span of about 41,000 years, and variations in Earth’s orbit around the sun referred to as eccentricity with a span of 93,000 years . These orbital changes created a glacial-interglacial cycle of 41,000 years from 2.5 to 1.0 million years ago and a longer cycle of ~100,000 years from 1.0 million years ago to today (Figure). The combination of these three Milankovitch Cycles changes the angle at which the sun’s energy strikes the surface of the earth near the poles and therefore changes the amount of energy (insolation) received by Earth (Figure). As the climate cooled during the Cenozoic Era, the subtle changes in energy received by the planet expresses itself as a warmer and cooler climate cycle, thus the glacial-interglacial cycles.

14.5.2 Sea-Level Change and Isostatic Rebound

Since glaciers are ice located on land (not floating in the ocean), when glaciers melt and retreat two things happen—sea-level rises globally and the land rises locally. Melting glacial water runs off into the ocean and sea-level worldwide will rise. For example, since the last glacial maximum about 19,000 years ago sea-level has risen about 400 feet (125 meters) . An overall global change in sea level is called eustatic sea-level change. More water in the ocean causes a eustatic sea-level rise. Another important factor causing eustatic sea-level rise is thermal expansion. According to basic physics, thermal expansion occurs when a solid, liquid, or gas expands in volume when the temperature increases (Figure). Watch this 30 second video demonstrating thermal expansion with the classic brass ball and ring experiment. About ⅔ of the eustatic sea-level rise during the last interglacial span was the result of thermal expansion .

However, tectonics and isostatic rebound can move the land up and down. The change of sea level as it relates to a more local continental landscape is called relative sea-level change. Relative sea-level change includes both the vertical movement of eustatic sea-level and the vertical movement of land, so that the sea-level change is measured relative to the land. Therefore, if the land rises a lot and sea-level rises only a little, then the sea-level would appear to go down.

The lithosphere can move vertically as a result of two main processes, tectonics and isostatic rebound. Tectonic uplift can occur when tectonic plate collide as discussed in the Plate Tectonics chapter. Isostasy describes the equilibrium that exists for the earth’s lithosphere, where denser lithosphere “sinks” lower on top of the asthenosphere and less dense lithosphere “floats” higher on the asthenosphere. Isostatic rebound is when some weight is removed from the continental lithosphere causing it to “float” higher on the asthenosphere. Erosion can remove this weight very slowly or the relatively rapid removal of glaciers can remove a lot of weight in a short amount of time. Melting glaciers removes weight from the continental lithosphere causing it to rise or “rebound” from being previously depressed. Most glacial isostatic rebound is occurring where glaciers recently melted (19,000 years ago) such as Canada and Scandinavia. Glacial isostatic rebound will cause the relative sea-level to fall or rise less quickly. Isostatic rebound also occurred in Utah when the water from Lake Bonneville was removed .

Map showing greatest rebound rates in the areas of recent glaciation.
Rate of isostatic rebound.

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