Glaciers

Glaciers leave an impressive footprint on the landscape, carving the rock as they retreat and leaving behind steep topography and fiords where the ice once held sway. Flooded seacoasts and rising water levels are the legacy of their retreats, as are the ecological changes on the landscapes around the glacier’s edge. Glaciers also have cultural impacts, in that their activity has affected human settlement, migration, and subsistence over thousands of years. The landscape around a glacier clearly illustrates the effects of Pleistocene and Holocene glaciation. Ice excavates the bedrock, forming bowl-shaped cirques, pyramidal horns, and a series of jagged spires called arête ridges that separate glacial valleys. As glaciers carve U-shaped valleys, rocks plucked from the bedrock and frozen in the ice etch grooves and striations in the bedrock.

Rocks scoured from surrounding valley walls create dark debris lines called lateral or medial moraines along the edges and down the center of glaciers. Pulverized rock called rock flour, ground by the glacier to a fine powder, escapes with glacial meltwater producing the murky color of glacially fed rivers and lakes. Glacial recession unmasks trimlines, slightly sloping changes in vegetation or weathered bedrock on the valley walls that indicate a glacier’s height at its glacial maximum. Meltwater transports glacially eroded material to the outwash plain, an alluvial plain at the edge of retreating glaciers. Icebergs break away or calve from the faces of glaciers ending in lakes or the ocean.

Cracked pieces of rock, plucked or torn from the bedrock, are carried with other debris in and on the glacier. This debris scrapes the valley walls and floors, leaving grooves and striations. Rock debris is crushed and ground into fine grains, called rock flour.

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