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CHAPTER 18: Glacial Systems

Cirque in the Front Range Rocky Mountains, Colorado M. Ritter Some of the most magnificent landscapes on Earth are created by the action of glaciers. Throughout much of our geologic history, great sheets of ice have waxed and waned across the Earth's surface. Glaciers in high mountains have created a craggy landscape of sharp ridges, amphitheater-like depressions, and hanging valleys occupied by spectacular waterfalls. Over the flatter plains of the Earth, ice sheets over a mile thick advanced, plowing over and burying the surface in a great thickness of glacial sediment. Once retreated, the glaciers left sinuous ridges, streamlined hills, and a pocked marked surface of depressions and lakes.

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Glacial Systems Outline

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Glaciation o Causes of glaciation o Anatomy of a glacier o Glacier movement Geologic work of glaciers o Glacial erosion o Glacier transport and deposition Landforms of Continental Glaciation Landforms of Alpine Glaciation Review

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Glaciation A glacier is a natural accumulation of land ice showing movement at some time. Many times during 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 stage of glaciation is due to a change in Earth temperature and circulation. It is generally accepted that a global decrease of 4o to 5o C, especially during the summer, and a substantial increase in the amount of snowfall in subarctic and arctic regions is necessary for the onset of a glacial episode. Several theories have been proposed for such a change 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 mountain regions. Milutin Milankovitch proposed one of the most significant theories to account for climate change by variations in Earth orbit. Changes in the eccentricity of earth orbit, the degree of deviation of the orbit from a perfect circular path, is thought to cause the necessary change 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 correlated with ocean sediments that record the history of glacial stages. The cyclical nature of warming and cooling correspond well with the estimated dates of glacial and interglacial periods. In addition 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 stages of glaciation in earth history see: "Why were there four long, generally cool periods during which 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 accumulation exceeds the summer loss of snow over a long period of time. Snow metamorphoses into glacial ice under the increasing pressure of accumulated layers of snow. It first changes to a granular form called firn, and ultimately into ice. Glacial ice sometimes looks blue because it absorbs 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.

Figure GS.2 Regions of a glacier.

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The mass balance of a glacier determines if it will advance across the surface or not. The mass balance is determined by the amount of gain and loss of ice from the glacier. The mass balance is positive when it accumulates more ice than it loses. A glacier has a negative mass balance if it loses more ice than it gains. Glaciers form in the zone of accumulation, the portion of the glacier over which accumulation exceeds ablation. Ablation is the loss of ice (or snow) from the glacier. Ablation includes sublimation, wind erosion, melting, and evaporation. The zone of accumulation for the large continental ice sheets resides at high latitudes. For mountain glaciers, the zone of accumulation is at a high altitude where temperatures are cold prevent complete summertime melt. The zone of ablation is where loss of ice mass is greater than accumulation. The boundary between these two zones is the firn orequilibrium line. If accumulation exceeds ablation the glacier will grow. If ablation exceeds accumulation, the glacier will retreat by melting in place. You can approximate the location of the equilibrium line by examinig an aerial photograph. The glacier looks ³dirtier´ below the equilibrium line as glacial sediment is exposed on top of the ice. Above the line it is more white because fresh snow usually covers the surface. Listen to a glacier refreezing (Antarctica 2000). Glacier Movement

Figure GS.3 Crevasses slice across the surface of a glacier (Courtesy USGS DDS21)

Once the ice reaches a thickness of about 20 meters (66 ft) it will begin to move under the pressure of its weight. Glaciers move across the surface by internal deformation and basal slip. Under the weight of accumulating ice, the ice is deformed and begins to move by pseudo-plastic flow. Glaciers slip over the surface lubricated by meltwater at their base. Generally speaking, flow velocity in a glacier is greatest near the surface of the ice and decreases towards the bottom. The surface moves faster than the base does due to internal deformation and basal slipping. The actual forward movement of a particle of ice in the glacier is about 1,000 feet per year. A typical glacier will move at about 10 inches a day, though some move quite more rapidly like Greenland's Jakobshavn glacier. [ View "Fastest

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Glacier" fromNova scienceNow] Variations in the speed of the ice caused by surface irregularities results in differential expansion and compression of the ice and the development of crevasses. A deadly situation for hikers, crevasses can open and close with little warning. A glacial surge occurs as an abrupt movement that can cover tens of meters per day. The exact cause is not well-known, but may result from water pressure building at the base which "floats" the glacier. In 1986 the Hubbard Glacier surged across the mouth of the Russell fjord in Alaska cutting it off from Yakut Bay. Glacier movement exceeded 112 feet per day, compared to a normal rate of 10 inches per day! Types of glaciers

Figure GS.4 Ice sheet on Ellesmere Island, Canada (Courtesy: Geological Survey of Canada)

Continental glaciers are vast ice sheets which originate in high latitudes. Here, cold temperatures allow snow to accumulate to great depths, metamorphosing into glacial ice. In the not so distant past, geologically speaking, the great ice sheets waxed and waned, penetrating into the midlatitudes as great lobes of ice. The continent of Antarctic and Greenland are the two major expanses of ice sheets on Earth today.

Figure GS. 5 Terminus of Nisqually Glacier in 1978 Mount Rainier National Park (Courtesy: USGS DDS-21)

Alpine glaciers are those that form at high altitudes where the environment is conducive to glacier formation. Pushing outward from their zone of accumulation, alpine glaciers fill mountain valleys and sculpt the surface beneath. Upon retreat some of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth are revealed. Piedmont glaciers form by the merging of alpine glaciers at the base of mountains as they issue out of their valleys.

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Geologic work of glaciers Glacial erosion Glaciers themselves do relatively little significant erosion because ice is so soft. Under the weight of an ice sheet thousands of feet thick continental glaciers detach material from the surface by crushing the underlying bedrock. Once the material is loosened from the surface, ice can quarry (also known as plucking) the rock by freezing around and into fractures, then lifting it from the surface. The rock embedded in the ice gouges and smoothes bedrock surfaces by abrasion. Striations are fine scratches left in bedrock by abrasion. At a larger scale, linear grooves are ground into the bedrock in the direction of ice movement. Episodic movement leaves crescent-shaped marks called chatter marks gouged into the bedrock. The constant abrasion of exposed rock also createspolished bedrock.

Figure GS.6 Grooved bedrock, Quebec Courtesy USGS DDS21

Figure GS.7 Chatter marks

Figure GS.8 Striations Courtesy USGS DDS21

Glacier Transport and Deposition Glacial drift is the general term applied to materials eroded from the surface and deposited by glaciers. Glaciers transport the embedded material towards the front of the glacier as if they were on a conveyor belt, or is deposit directly beneath the ice. Most material is embedded in the lowest few meters of the glacier and along its sides. Little drift material is lodged in the interior as flow through most of the glacier is laminar, except at the nose where thrust faulting of the ice occurs. When the ice becomes so burdened by its load of soil and rock fragments, it deposits the mixture of fine and coarse textured material in place as glacial till. Till is distinguished by its lack of sorting.

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Figure GS.9 Glacial till on Mt. Rainier. Courtesy of USGS DDS21

Figure GS.10 Outwash along a road cut Courtesy USGS DDS21

At the margin of the glacier, massive amounts of rock debris are deposited as the ice stagnates and melts in place. The meltwater flushes through the accumulated debris, spreading drift ahead of the decaying glacier as stratified drift. Landforms of Continental Glaciation Examine the diagrams of a region during glaciation and thesame region after glaciation while reading the material below. A moraine is a glacially formed accumulation of unconsolidated debris. Moraines often take the form of a belt of low hills composed of till. Where the leading edge of the glacier was located a terminal or end moraine can be found. The terminal moraine marks the furthest advance of the ice sheet. Behind the terminal moraine is found a recessional morainedeposited when the ice sheet receded and stopped for a period of time. Often, uplands will cause an ice sheet to separate into lobes.

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Figure GS. 12 Aerial photo of a portion of the Northern Unit of Kettle Moraine, WI. The rugged terrain and kettle lakes of the moraine is visible in much of the photograph.

Figure GS.13 Wisconsin-age moraine in northern Illinois

Interlobate moraines form between lobes of the ice sheet.Ground moraine is till that was lodged beneath the glacier and generally found behind the terminal moraine. Ground moraine. Wetland areas are often created in ground moraine which is a convenient way of identifying them from a topographic map.

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Figure GS.14 Outwash plain, Copper River region, Alaska (Courtesy USGS DDS21

An outwash plain forms ahead of the terminal moraine as melt water from the snout of a glacier deposits stratified drift. The outwash plain is a relatively flat surface that may be pock marked with depressions called kettles. If numerous kettles are present the surface is called apitted outwash plain.

Figure GS.15 Sinuous form of an esker is seen in this aerial photograph (Courtesy Geological Survey of Canada)

Eskers are sinuous ridges of glacio-fluvial material that form in tunnels in an ice sheet . The sides of the tunnel act as part of the channel for a melt water stream. As the glacier recedes, the support for the stream is removed and the stream deposits its load into a long ridge-like form. Eskers are good sources for sand and gravel, and many of them have been destroyed by mining for these materials.

Figure GS.16 Streamline profile of a drumlin in Alberta, Canada (Courtesy Geological Survey of Canada)

Drumlins are stream-lined hills that appear separately or in "swarms" . Their formation is not well known but form by the deposition of till. As the ice rides over the till it is smoothed into an inverted spoon-shaped feature. The steep side faces the direction the ice

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sheet came from while the more gentle slope of the tail points toward the direction of ice flow. Figure GS.17 Kame in northern unit of Kettle Moraine State Park, WI

Kames are steep mounds or conical hills built by the deposition of stratified drift in or around ice. Some kames form in holes in the ice where sediment accumulates. A mound of glacial drift is left behind once the ice melts.

Figure GS.18 Kettle lake in moraine. (Courtesy USGS DDS21)

Kettles are pits in the surface that may or may not be occupied by water . They form when an isolated block of ice is surrounded by till or stratified drift. After a period of time the ice block melts away leaving behind a hole in the surface. Kettles are often found on outwash plains or embedded in moraines (hence the name for Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin). Go here to view kames and moraine topography in the Northern Unit of Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin (Caution - 1.13 MB QuickTime file). Landforms of Alpine Glaciation Examine the diagrams of a region during glaciation and the same region after glaciation while reading the material below. The headwaters of stream tributaries serve as the birth place for alpine glaciers. The headwaters of tributary valleys lie at the highest elevation in the drainage basin of a mountain stream. Here snow accumulates to great thickness and starts to move down valley. As it moves outward from the zone of accumulation, the glacier scours away at the valley sides. The material eroded from the surface is transported the length of the glacier to the zone of ablation, where it is deposited.

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Figure GS.19 Pawnee Cirque, Front Range, Colorado

At the zone of accumulation where ice is accumulating, the glacier plucks rock from the head of the valley. The erosion creates a huge, amphitheater-like depression at the valley head called a cirque. After the glacier melts away a tarn, or cirque lake , may be found on the floor. Surrounding the floor are the massive curved side and headwalls of the cirque. A headwall crevasse known as a bergschrund forms where snow and compacted firn pull away from ice that remains frozen to the rock of the headwall. As alpine glaciers erode headward, they narrow the upland between ice sheets from opposite directions and a pyramid-shaped peak, called ahorn is created. When two adjacent cirques on opposite sides of a divide cut back and remove part of it, a sharp-edge notch or pass called a col is formed.

Figure GS.20 U-shaped trough in the Alps

The massive amount of ice that fills the main valley is from that which accumulates at the head of the valley plus that from all the tributary valleys that enter it. The enormous weight of the ice erodes away at the valley sides. The V-shape of the pre-existing stream valley now takes on the characteristic U-shaped of a glacial trough.

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Figure FS. 21 Hanging valley in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy USGS

Prior to glaciation, tributary streams entered the main stream at the elevation of the main channel. But during glaciation, tributary glaciers feeding into the main valley are smaller and do not erode their valleys as deep as the glacier that occupies the main valley. Tributary valleys are left hanging at a higher elevation above the main valley floor as a result of more intensive downward cutting by the main valley glacier. These hanging valleys create spectacular waterfalls. Glaciers in adjacent tributary valleys scour away at the upland between them (an interfluve). As erosion of the interfluve continues, it is narrows into a serrated ridge known as an arête. As mountain glaciers flow down valley they encounter exposed bed rock of varying resistance to erosion. The glacier will erode down into weaker rock but have to flow over the stronger rock. This creates a series of rock steps composed of the more resistant rocks with small depression behind them where the weaker rock is exposed. Often these depressions are occupied with water to form staircase lakes. Connected by a small stream these lakes are also know as paternoster lakes.

Figure GS.22 Niwot Ridge arête, Colorado Front Range

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Figure GS.23 Staircase lakes, Green Lakes Valley, Colorado Front Range.

Figure GS.19 Lateral and end moraine. (Courtesy Geological Survey of Canada)

Glacial till is deposited along the valley sides as lateral moraine. Till is transported and deposited at the nose of the glacier as an end moraine. The end or terminal moraine marks the furthest advance of the glacier. Behind the terminal moraine are foundrecessional moraines indicating positions of the glacier front during times of retreat. When lateral moraines coalesce upon entering a main glacial trough, medial moraines are formed and run the length of the glacier.

Figure GS.24 Medial moraine (Courtesy Geological Survey Canada)

Explore some of these features by taking a virtual field trip to Niwot Ridge, Colorado in Google Earth or with the embedded viewer below (Google Earth plugin required).

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Review Use the links below to review and assess your learning. Start with the "Important Terms and Concepts" to ensure you know the terminology related to the topic of the chapter and concepts discussed. Move on to the "Review Questions" to answer critical thinking questions about concepts and processes discussed in the chapter. Finally, test your overall understanding by taking the "Self-assessment quiz".
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Important Terms and Concepts Review Questions Self-assessment quiz

Additional Resources Use these resources to further explore the world of geography Multimedia "Glaciers" (Annenberg/CPB) from the site: "Many of the world¶s most beautiful landscapes were made by glaciers. This program shows how, explaining glacial formation, structure, movement, and methods of gouging and accumulating earth. The program provides images of glaciers and glacial landforms such as moraines, and discusses how study of glaciers may help us understand ice ages and the greenhouse effect." (30:00) Go to the Earth Revealed site and scroll to "Glaciers". One-time, free registration may be required to view film. Activity "What's Happening to Alaska's Glaciers? Their Dynamic Response to Changing Climate and Other Factors" Dr. Bruce Molina (USGS) Descriptive Flyer pdf. Visualization Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World (USGS) Readings Glaciers on Mt. Rainier (USGS Open-File Report 92-474) Brief overview of Mt. Rainier's glaciers including, glacier flow, glaciers and climate, and history of glacier fluctuations.

The Physical Environment: An Introduction to Physical Geography

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