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Rock Glaciers


Rock glaciers are amongst the most breath-taking and most widespread periglacial

occurrences on earth. Perhaps, the most comprehensive definition is A suitable descriptive

definition of a rock glacier is presented by Potter (1972) and Washburn (1979). According to

them a rock glacier is “a tongue-like or lobate body, usually of angular boulders, that

resembles a small glacier, generally occurs in high mountainous terrain and usually has

ridges, furrows, and sometimes lobes on its surface, and has a steep front at the angle of


Another notable definition is provided by Potter Jr., N. in 1972. He says "...a tongue-

like or lobate body, usually of angular boulders, that resembles a small glacier, generally

occurs in high mountainous terrain and usually has ridges, furrows, and sometimes lobes on

its surface, and has a steep front at the angle of repose.”

Whereas Encyclopedia Britannica has provided the following definition “Tongue like

body of coarse rock fragments, found in high mountains above the timberline that moves

slowly down a valley. The rock material usually has fallen from the valley walls and may

contain large boulders: it resembles the material left at the terminus of a true glacier.

Interstitial ice usually occurs in the centre of rock glaciers. Where the ice approaches the
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terminus, it melts and releases the rock material, which then forms a steep talus slope. A rock

glacier may be 30 meters (100 feet) deep and nearly 1 1/2 kilometers (about 1 mile) long.”

They may be classified as active or inactive glaciers depending on their motion or the

lack of it. Active rock glaciers continuously move down-slope or down-valley as a result of

internal deformation of ice, supposedly as a manifestation of basal gliding. The top part of an

active rock glacier moves faster than its basal part. As a result of it near the toe end of a rock

glacier material rolled down form the top of the glacier starts forming a slope. It is by looking

at this signature slope at the toe, any geologist can easily recognize the rock glacier and

whether it is active or not. Their estimated velocities range from centimeters/year to quite a

few meters/year. In the Alaskan range upper surfaces of active rock glaciers have been

recorded to move forward at a rate of a meter per year, while the flow of the front is nearly

half that figure.

The disappearance of foundation of rock debris or as a repercussion of increased

warmth in climate, an active rock glacier may ultimately change into an inactive one.

A rock glacier requires several necessary conditions to exist. Firstly, there should be a

source of blocky rock. Secondly, the average annual temperature should be low enough for

water to freeze and to form the characteristic ice matrix in the spaces between the rocks.

Lastly, a slope for the rock glacier to move along as it is gravity that gives life to such glacier.

Their origin is still a reason of controversy amongst researchers. Some of them

hypothesize that they are solely the consequence of periglacial processes whereas others

argue that they may also have evolved from debris-covered glaciers.

Rock glaciers with permafrost origins are also termed as "ice-cemented rock glaciers",

and those with glacial origins as "ice-cored rock glaciers".
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Usually they are found at heights more than 2000m above sea surface. There are a

number of regions in the world where the abundance of the phenomenon has provided

researchers ample opportunities for study and research. Central Alps especially near Austria

and Andes near Peru and Chile are two of the most famous regions. The phenomenon can

also be observed in the Himalayan range and Afghanistan. In US they can be found by

dozens in the Alaskan Range. They also occur in the San Juan range in Colorado, in

Wyoming and the Sierra Nevada in California. Their largest concentration is found on Disko

Island (West Greenland) (at least 200). They are also in abundance in Iceland, Kazakhstan

and Svalbard.

. Besides Active and Inactive glaciers the other famous type is Fossil rock glaciers,

which does not contain any ice, usually all the ice has melted out, its surface, especially the

frontal slope, is often found to be covered by vegetation, the inclination of the frontal slope is

normally less steeper than that of their Active counterparts.

They may naturally occur in many shapes. They may be tongue-shaped, lobate or of

complex shapes.

Tongue-Shaped Lobate Complex
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Mostly rock glaciers have length of a few hundred, a width of 50 - 200 meters and an

area of nearly 0.2 km². Reichenkar rock glacier (western Stubai Alps), which has a length of

1400 m, is considered as one of the longest rock glaciers.


The surface is covered by a coarse grained debris layer (which is the active layer),

underlain by a core of frozen debris and/or sometimes ice. The surface of most of the active

rock glaciers is differentiated by some well developed networks of ridges and furrows both

longitudinally and transversally.

The frontal slope of an active rock glacier is typified by an almost vertical gradient (in

the range of 40 - 45°) and is devoid of any vegetation. It is usually composed of fresh and un-

weathered matter.
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In the base of some rock glaciers a depression similar to the shape of a spoon gets

developed as a result of the melting of huge mass of ice under the upper layer of debris.

Temperatures recorded in the debris layer

The temperature in the debris layer shows complex behavior. It depends on various

factors, especially the weather, the distribution on the basis of grain-size, the thickness of the

layer of debris and the core ice inside.

As expected, a rapid decrease in temperature can be observed from the surface region

to a depth as less as 150 cm. Generally, the minimum temperature can be recorded between

10-12 in the evening and maximum temperature between 6-12 in the morning.

Temperatures recorded at the base of the winter snow cover (Below the Surface)

As a thick snow layer acts as an insulating layer, temperature at the base of a winter snow

cover gets mainly influenced by only the heat flow from underlying ground ice. That is why

temperatures at the basal part do not show temperature variations on daily basis. The

recorded temperature in active rock glaciers is usually found to be below -3°C (a normal

indication of permafrost), while on ground free from this phenomenon it is notably higher i.e.

in the range of -0.3°C and -1°C.


Temperature of the melted water gushing out in the form of springs from active rock glaciers

is generally very low and is recorded in the range of 0.4-0.9°C. This shows that this spring

water was in direct contact with ice while passing through the rock glacier.

This discharge of water from active rock glaciers is affected strongly by seasonal and

diurnal variations. It is controlled by several factors such as the thickness of the winter snow

layer, the whole size of rock glacier and the drainage area, the existence of one or many

cirque glaciers in drainage area, the layer thickness and the grain size of the debris of the
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active layer, the groundwater abundance or scarcity and the general weather during the melt

period, especially summer thunderstorms, resulting in a noticeable seasonal and diurnal


The water released from these springs may be a result of many independent

phenomena. Like it may have come from snowmelt or melting of permafrost or glacier ice or

atmospheric precipitation in summer may also be a reason of it.

Fig. Debris-ice components in mountainous area with suggested terminology for the main

features and alternative terms in parentheses. After Martin and Whalley (1987), Humlum

(1988), and Hamilton and Whalley (1995). (Source: Whalley, W. B., and F. Azizi, 2003)

Electrical conductivity of the water, during cold weather periods, is generally low as

the water is mostly derived from snow/ice and/or precipitation, it gets high in autumns when

melting is low and the discharge is normally consist of groundwater.

An interesting discovery in the modern age was the proof of presence of similar to

earth rock glaciers on the surface of Mars. A lot of research is still needed before someone
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can put something conclusive about this discovery as they can, until now, best be described

as “rock glacier-like features”. (Malin, M. C., et al., 2001)

Rock Glacier Formation

Geologists, over the years, have proposed several hypotheses about rock glacier

formation. Despite all the difference of opinions all the hypotheses agree on one thing i.e. a

necessity of prolonged cold conditions (same conditions as that of permafrost). Supposing if a

glacier is large enough, it can maintain its own internal microclimate.

There have been three main models of rock glacier formation which are proposed and

discussed in detail by Whalley and Martin (1992), namely a permafrost origin, a glacier-

derived origin, and a mass-wasting (landslide) origin. The first two are based on the creep of

ice while the third (the most likely one) may involve, but does not need, the presence of ice.

These models are briefly discussed below:

Permafrost Model

The permafrost model for rock glacier formation is based on the ideas of Wahrhaftig

and Cox (1959) and has been propagated in particular by Barsch (1996) and Haeberli (1985).

The “congelation” ice formed from freezing water (either by ice segregation or water

injection under pressure). An important requirement is an average annual air temperature of,

at most, -1.5°C. This thermal condition implies a “zonal” occurrence of rock glaciers and this

attribute has led to the use of rock glaciers as being indicators of permafrost, both present and

relict (Barsch, 1996). The presence of any glacier ice which plays a part in the formation of

rock glaciers is generally disputed by adherents to this model. The literature often implies

that rock glaciers necessarily have a permafrost origin.

Glacial Model
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The glacial model (for a comprehensive review, see Whalley and Martin, 1992), relies

on the preservation of a thin (generally <50 m) body of ice by an insulating weathered rock

debris layer. The ice is considered to be derived from glacial, i.e., “sedimentary” sources. The

thin ice creeps, giving a typically low velocity and the debris preserves this in an otherwise

ablation-dominant environment. The controls on maintaining this buried ice are thus related

to thickness of debris cover as much as local climate (measured by, e.g., degree-day

estimates). As such, they are “azonal” features and cannot be used to delimit temperature

regimes such as the presence of permafrost.

Landslide Model

The landslide, or “catastrophic,” model (Johnson, 1974, 1984) has used similarity of

topographic form to suggest that rock glaciers may be derived from rapid landslides/rock

avalanches (Bergsturtz or Sturtzstroms) (Whalley, 1976; Whalley and Martin, 1992). These

will generally be forms which do not flow after emplacement. However, it has been

recognized that some Bergsturz have fallen on retreating/down-wasting glaciers and so have

produced “instant” rock glaciers. This is a variation of the glacier ice cored model rather than

the landslide model (Whalley, 1976). In the case of fossil rock glaciers, it may not be easy or

possible to distinguish between these origins.

When a pile of debris at the basal part of a cliff (also known as talus) gets saturated

with freezing and liquefying water, it may tend to slowly move just like a glacier (normally

the mass-wasting movement is slower and less noticeable as it usually has a very low angle of

repose). Whereas in true glacier movements as a result of the pressure from the weight of the

ice pack itself compressing the underneath lying ice until it becomes plastic and starts

flowing slowly, in this particular kind of rock glacier it is mainly the melting of the ice that

results in that flow. It can be also be compared with solifluction, however the rocks involved

here provide the flow a much steeper angle of repose, depicting the appearance of a true
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glacial flow. Usually in these types of cases flow may sometimes be aided by the glacier

standing directly on top of permafrost (which does not absorb the melting water).


Interpretation of many Martian surface forms has, currently, to be done by

comparison with terrestrial landforms. For “rock glaciers” this seems to be particularly

troublesome. Unfortunately, not only is there a lack of agreement on the terrestrial forms and

their significance but there is also little about the nature or volume of any ice bodies found.

For example, a glacial model for a rock glacier implies that it is likely to contain much more

ice than if a permafrost model was applicable. Conversely, creep of a deforming body

containing little ice may take place over many thousands of years. That ice is a major,

probably the only, reason for flow in these debris masses seems to be clear but the

identification of the volumes and their location is difficult on Earth and Mars.

Modeling of ice bodies under Martian temperatures (Colaprete and Jakosky, 1998)

and FE modeling, of rock glaciers and protalus lobes with variations of the component

mixtures (Azizi and Whalley, 1995) shows a way forward. It is probably necessary to

combine the flow model with suppositions of where the ice may be located. Not only would

this apply to various forms of ice-rock debris composite but might also be used to test the

origin of the water source. However, there are still difficulties in knowing which constitutive

equations to use (ice-rock mixture ratios as much as temperature) let alone the actual

thickness of the body and ice location. Effective shear stresses acting on deforming ice

requires knowledge of both the thickness of material, deforming and rigid, at any location.

There is still a paucity of information in terrestrial rock glacier systems which relates

topographic features to rheology.
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Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is possibly the end of arguments about the internal

structure of these rock glaciers (Degenhardt, John J. Jr. et al. 2002). With the advancement in

science as a whole and particularly in the field of geology we can foresee a time when, like so

many other phenomenon of nature, the mystery of the formation of rock glaciers will also be


Works Cited

Brenning, A. Statistical Estimation and Logistic Regression Modeling of Rock Glacier

Distribution in the Andes of Santiago, Central Chile. Geographisches Institut,

Humboldt–Universität zu Berlin.

Burger, K. C.; Degenhardt, J. J.; Giardino, J. R. Engineering geomorphology of rock glaciers.

Geomorphology. Volume 31, Number 1, p. 93-132. Elsevier. December 1999.

Davis, T. Neil. Rock Glaciers. Article #251. Alaska Science Forum. September 7, 1978.

Degenhardt, John J. Jr. et al. The Internal Structure of Rock Glaciers and Geomorphologic

Interpretations: Yankee Boy Basin, CO, USA and Hiorthfjellet and Prins Karls

Forland, Svalbard. The Geological Society of America (GSA). Paper No. 115-4.

2002 Denver Annual Meeting. October 27-30, 2002.

Giardino, J. R., J. F. Shroder, et al. Rock Glaciers. London, Allen & Unwin. 1987.
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Goolsby, Jimmy Earl. East rock glacier of Lone Mountain, Madison County, Montana.

Montana State University. Bozeman, Montana. June 1972.

Ikeda, A. Combination of Geophysical Methods for Measuring the Structure of Rock

Glaciers. American Geophysical Union. Fall Meeting 2007.

Johnson, P. G. "Rock glacier types and their drainage systems, Grizzly Creek, Yukon

Territory." Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. Issue 15, p. 1496-1507. 1978.

Johnson, Peter G. Mass Movement of Ablation Complexes and Their Relationship to Rock

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Malin, M. C., et al., SW Candor layered floor terrain, in NASA Planetary Photojournal,

image M2101824, NASA, Washington, D. C. 2001.

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Whalley, W. B., and F. Azizi, Rock glaciers and protalus landforms: Analogous forms and

ice sources on Earth and Mars, Journal of Geophysical Research. 108(E4), 8032,

doi:10.1029/2002JE001864, 2003.

Whalley, W. B.; H. E. Martin. "Rock glaciers:II models and mechanisms." Progress in

Physical Geography. Volume 16, Number 2, p. 127-186. 1992.