The Physical Environment: An Introduction to Physical Geography
is a natural accumulation of land ice showing movement at some time. Many timesduring Earth's history, great ice sheets waxed and waned over the surface. What caused these periods of glaciation is still not fully understood and no single reason will probably be found.
Causes of glaciation
The onset of a period or
of glaciation is due to a change in Earth temperature andcirculation. It is generally accepted that a global decrease of 4
C, especially during thesummer, and a substantial increase in the amount of snowfall in subarctic and arctic regions isnecessary for the onset of a glacial episode. Several theories have been proposed for such achange in climate -- reductions in solar radiation due to meteorite collisions with the Earth,increased volcanism, the shifting location of continents, and the uplift of vast mountainregions. Milutin Milankovitch proposed one of the most significant theories to accountfor climate change by variations in Earth orbit. Changes in the eccentricity of earth orbit, thedegree of deviation of the orbit from a perfect circular path, is thought to cause the necessarychange in insolation to decrease global temperatures. Recall that the Earth's orbit is elliptical, but over periods of 100,000 years the shape varies. The changes in orbit have been correlatedwith ocean sediments that record the history of glacial stages. The cyclical nature of warmingand cooling correspond well with the estimated dates of glacial and interglacial periods. Inaddition to the change in orbit, the Earth "wobbles" on its axis which alters the amount of insolation reaching the surface of the Earth. [For more about the causes and stagesof glaciation in earth history see: "Why were there four long, generally cool periods duringwhich continent-sized glaciers advanced and retreated?" from the Illinois State Museum.]
Anatomy of a Glacier
Whatever the cause, the main reason glacial advances are initiated is that winter accumulationexceeds the summer loss of snow over a long period of time. Snow metamorphoses intoglacial ice under the increasing pressure of accumulated layers of snow. It first changes to agranular form called
, and ultimately into ice. Glacial ice sometimes looks blue because itabsorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum except blue, which it transmits and hence its blue appearance. Glacier ice may also appear white because some ice is fractured with pockets of air that indiscriminately scatters the visible light spectrum.
Regions of aglacier.