General Considerations

In order to gain a solid understanding of the different landforms produced by glaciers and their meltwater, it is helpful to discuss the glacial environment and the processes responsible for the formation of such structures.

Glaciers and topography

There are numerous types of glaciers, but it is sufficient here to focus on

Eskers, narrow ridges of gravel and sand left by a retreating glacier, wind through western Nunavut, Canada, near the Thelon River. © Richard Alexander Cooke III

two broad classes: mountain, or valley, glaciers and continental glaciers, or ice sheets (including ice caps).

Generally, ice sheets are larger than valley glaciers. The main difference between the two classes, however, is their relationship to the underlying topography. Valley glaciers are rivers of ice usually found in mountainous regions, and their flow patterns are controlled by the high relief in those areas. In map view, many large valley glacier systems, which have numerous tributary glaciers that join to form a large "trunk glacier," resemble the roots of a plant. Pancakelike ice sheets, on the other hand, are continuous over extensive areas and completely bury the underlying landscape beneath hundreds or thousands of metres of ice. Within continental ice sheets, the flow is directed more or less from the centre outward. At the periphery, however, where ice sheets are much thinner, they may be controlled by any substantial relief existing in the area. In this case, their borders may be lobate on a scale of a few kilometres, with tonguelike protrusions called outlet glaciers. Viewed by themselves, these are nearly indistinguishable from the lower reaches of a large valley glacier system. Consequently, many of the landforms produced by valley glaciers and continental ice sheets are similar or virtually identical, though they often differ in magnitude. Nonetheless, each type of glacier produces characteristic features and thus warrants separate discussion.

Glacial Erosion

Two processes, internal deformation and basal sliding, are responsible for the movement of glaciers under the influence of gravity. The temperature of glacier ice is a critical condition that affects these processes. For this reason, glaciers are classified into two main types, temperate and polar, according to their temperature regime. Temperate glaciers are also called isothermal glaciers, because they exist at the pressure-melting point (the melting temperature of ice at a given pressure) throughout their mass. The ice in polar, or cold glaciers, in contrast, is below the pressure-melting point. Some glaciers have an intermediate thermal character. For example, subpolar glaciers are temperate in their interior parts, but their margins are cold-based. This classification is a broad generalization, however, because the thermal condition of a glacier may show wide variations in both space and time.

Internal deformation, or strain, in glacier ice is a response to shear stresses arising from the weight of the ice (ice thickness) and the degree of slope of the glacier surface. Internal deformation occurs by movement within and between individual ice crystals (slow creep) and by brittle failure (fracture), which arises when the mass of ice cannot adjust its shape rapidly enough by the creep process to take up the stresses affecting it. The relative importance of these two processes is greatly influenced by the temperature of the ice. Thus, fractures due to brittle failure under tension, known as crevasses, are usually much deeper in polar ice than they are in temperate ice.

The temperature of the basal ice is an important influence upon a glacier's ability to erode its bed. When basal temperatures are below the pressure-melting point, the ability of the ice mass to slide on the bed (basal sliding) is inhibited by the adhesion of the basal ice to the frozen bed beneath. Basal sliding is also diminished by the greater rigidity of polar ice. This reduces the rate of creep, which, in turn, reduces the ability of the more rigid ice to deform around obstacles on the glacier bed. Thus, the flow of cold-based glaciers is predominantly controlled by internal deformation, with proportionately low rates of basal sliding. For this reason, rates of abrasion are commonly low beneath polar glaciers, and slow rates of erosion commonly result. Equally, the volume of meltwater is frequently very low, so that the extent of sediments and landforms derived from polar glaciers is limited.

Temperate glaciers, being at the pressure-meeting point, move by both mechanisms, with basal sliding being the more important. It is this sliding that enables temperate glaciers to erode their beds and carve landforms so effectively. Ice is, however, much softer and has a much lower shear strength than most rocks, and pure ice alone is not capable of substantially eroding anything other than unconsolidated sediments. Most temperate glaciers have a basal debris zone from several centimetres to a few metres thick that contains varying amounts of rock debris in transit. In this respect, glaciers act rather like sheets of sandpaper. While the paper itself is too soft to sand wood, the adherent hard grains make it a powerful abrasive system.

The analogy ends here, however, for the rock debris found in glaciers is of widely varying sizes—from the finest rock particles to large boulders—and also generally of varied types as it includes the different rocks that a glacier is overriding. For this reason, a glacially abraded surface usually bears many different "tool-marks," from microscopic scratches to gouges centimetres deep and tens of metres long. Over thousands of years glaciers may erode their substrate to a depth of several tens of metres by this mechanism, producing a variety of streamlined landforms typical of glaciated landscapes.

Several other processes of glacial erosion are generally included under the terms glacial plucking or quarrying. This process involves the removal of larger pieces of rock from the glacier bed. Various explanations for this phenomenon have been proposed. Some of the mechanisms suggested are based on differential stresses in the rock caused by ice being forced to flow around bedrock obstacles. High stress gradients are particularly important, and the resultant tensile stresses can pull the rock apart along preexisting joints or crack systems. These pressures have been shown to be sufficient to fracture solid rock, thus making it available for removal by the ice flowing above it. Other possibilities include the forcing apart of rock by the pressure of crystallization produced beneath the glacier as water derived from the ice refreezes (regelation) or because of temperature fluctuations in cavities under the glacier. Still another possible mechanism involves hydraulic pressures of flowing water known to be present, at least temporarily, under nearly all temperate glaciers. It is hard to determine which process is dominant because access to the base of active glaciers is rarely possible. Nonetheless, investigators know that larger pieces of rock are plucked from the glacier bed and contribute to the number of abrasive "tools" available to the glacier at its base. Other sources for the rock debris in glacier ice may include rockfalls from steep slopes bordering a glacier or unconsolidated sediments overridden as a glacier advances.

Glacial Deposition

Debris in the glacial environment may be deposited directly by the ice (till) or, after reworking, by meltwater streams (outwash). The resulting deposits are termed glacial drift.

As the ice in a valley glacier moves from the area of accumulation to that of ablation, it acts like a conveyor belt, transporting debris located beneath, within, and above the glacier toward its terminus or, in the case of an ice sheet, toward the outer margin. Near the glacier margin where the ice velocity decreases greatly is the zone of deposition. As the ice melts away, the debris that was originally frozen into the ice commonly forms a rocky and/or muddy blanket over the glacier margin. This layer often slides off the ice in the form of mudflows. The resulting deposit is called a flow-till by some authors. On the other hand, the debris may be laid down more or less in place as the ice melts away around and beneath it. Such deposits are referred to as melt-out till, and sometimes as ablation till. In many cases, the material located between a moving glacier and its bedrock bed is severely sheared, compressed, and "over-compacted." This type of deposit is called lodgment till.

By definition, till is any material laid down directly or reworked by a glacier. Typically, it is a mixture of rock fragments and boulders in a fine-grained sandy or muddy matrix (non-stratified drift). The exact composition of any particular till, however, depends on the materials available to the glacier at the time of deposition. Thus, some tills are made entirely of lake clays deformed by an overriding glacier. Other tills are composed of river gravels and sands that have been "bulldozed" and striated during a glacial advance. Tills often contain some of the tools that glaciers use to abrade their bed. These rocks and boulders bear striations, grooves, and facets, and characteristic till-stones are commonly shaped like bullets or flat-irons. Till-boulders of a rock type different from the bedrock on which they are deposited are dubbed "erratics." In some cases, erratics with distinctive lithologies can be traced back to their source, enabling investigators to ascertain the direction of ice movement of ice sheets in areas where striations either are absent or are covered by till or vegetation.

Meltwater deposits, also called glacial outwash, are formed in channels directly beneath the glacier or in lakes and streams in front of its margin. In contrast to till, out-wash is generally bedded or laminated (stratified drift), and the individual layers are relatively well sorted according to grain size. In most cases, gravels and boulders in outwash are rounded and do not bear striations or grooves on their surfaces, since these tend to wear off rapidly during stream transport. The grain size of individual deposits depends not only on the availability of different sizes of debris but also on the velocity of the depositing current and the distance from the head of the stream. Larger boulders are deposited by rapidly flowing creeks and rivers close to the glacier margin. Grain size of deposited material decreases with increasing distance from the glacier. The finest fractions, such as clay and silt, may be deposited in glacial lakes or ponds or transported all the way to the ocean.

A swath of till in Glacier National Park, Montana. What type of till is left behind depends on the composition of each glacier, but typical materials are stone and silt. Department of Interior/USGS

Finally, it must be stressed that most glacier margins are constantly changing chaotic masses of ice, water, mud, and rocks. Ice-marginal deposits thus are of a highly variable nature over short distances, as is much the case with till and outwash as well.

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