4.3 Glacial Erosion

Steve Earle

Glaciers are effective agents of erosion, especially in situations where the ice is not frozen to its base and therefore can slide over the bedrock or other sediment.  The ice itself is not particularly effective at erosion because it is relatively soft; instead, it is the rock fragments embedded in the ice that are pushed down onto the underlying surfaces and do most of the erosion.  A useful analogy would be to imagine the effect of rubbing a piece of paper against a wooden surface—not much happens—but, if it is a piece of sandpaper with embedded angular fragments of garnet, the wood will be significantly abraded.

Some of the results of glacial erosion are different in areas with continental glaciation versus alpine glaciation.  Continental glaciation tends to produce relatively flat bedrock surfaces, especially where the rock beneath is uniform in strength and there hasn’t been tectonic activity for hundreds of millions of years.  In areas with recent tectonic activity and where there are differences between the strength of rocks a glacier will obviously tend to erode the softer and weaker rock more effectively than the harder and stronger rock.  Much of central and eastern Canada, which was completely covered by the huge Laurentide Ice Sheet at various times during the Pleistocene, has been eroded to a relatively flat surface. In contrast, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet eroded and accentuated deep valleys and plateaus in the mountainous regions of western Canada and northwestern United States.  In many cases the existing relief is also due the presence of glacial deposits—such as drumlins, eskers and moraines (all discussed below)—rather than to differential erosion (Figure 4.3.1).

Figure 4.3.1 Drumlins—Streamlined Hills Formed Beneath a Glacier, Here Comprised of Sediment—In the Amundsen Gulf Region of Nunavut, Canada. The drumlins are tens of metres high, a few hundred metres across and a few kilometres long. One of the drumlins in this view has been highlighted with a yellow dotted line. Ice-flow was from the upper left towards the lower right.

Alpine glaciers produce very different topography than continental glaciers, and much of the topographic variability of mountains in temperate regions can be attributed to glacial erosion. In general, glaciers are much wider than rivers of similar length, and since they tend to erode more at their bases than their sides, they produce wide valleys with relatively flat bottoms and steep sides—known as U-shaped valleys.  Howe Sound, north of Vancouver, was occupied by a large glacier that originated in the Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton areas, and then joined the much larger glacier in the Strait of Georgia.  Howe Sound and most of its tributary valleys have a pronounced U-shaped profiles (Figure 4.3.2).

Figure 4.3.2 The View Down the U-shaped Valley of Mill Creek Valley Towards the U-Shaped Valley of Howe Sound, British Columbia, With the Village of Britannia on the Opposite Side

U-shaped valleys and their tributaries provide the basis for a wide range of alpine glacial topographic features, examples of which are visible on the Space Station view of the Swiss Alps shown on Figure 4.3.3.  This area was much more intensely glaciated during the past glacial maximum.  At that time the large U-shaped valley in the lower right was occupied by glacial ice, and all of the other glaciers shown here were longer and much thicker than they are now.  But even at the peak of Pleistocene glaciation some of the higher peaks and ridges would have been exposed and not directly affected by glacial erosion.  In these areas, and in the areas above the glaciers today, most of the erosion is related to freeze-thaw effects.  A peak that extends above the surrounding glacier is called a nunatuk.

Some of the important features visible on Figure 4.3.3 are arêtes: sharp ridges between U-shaped glacial valleys, cols: low points along arêtes that constitute passes between glacial valleys, horns: steep peaks that have been glacially and freeze-thaw eroded on three or more sides, cirques: bowl-shaped basins that form at the head of a glacial valley, hanging valleys: U-shaped valleys of tributary glaciers that hang above the main valley because the larger main-valley glacier eroded more deeply into the terrain, and truncated spurs: the ends of arêtes (a.k.a. “spurs”) that have been eroded into steep triangle-shaped cliffs by the glacier in the corresponding main valley.

Figure 4.3.3 A Space Station View of the Swiss Alps in the Area of the Aletsch Glacier. A variety of alpine glacial erosion features are labelled.

Some of these alpine-glaciation erosional features are also shown on Figure 4.3.4 in diagram form.

Figure 4.3.4 Some of the Important Alpine-Glaciation Erosion Features.
Exercise 4.3  Identify Glacial Erosion Features

Figure 4.3.5 shows Mt. Assiniboine in the BC Rockies . What are the features at locations a through e?  Look for one of each of the following:  a horn, an arête, a truncated spur, a cirque and a col.  Try to identify some of the numerous other arêtes in this view, as well as another horn.

Figure 4.3.5 Mt. Assiniboine, British Columbia

Exercise answers are provided Appendix 2.

A number of other glacial erosion features exist at smaller scales.  For example, a drumlin is an elongated feature that is streamlined at the down-ice end (Figure 4.3.6).  The one shown is larger than most others, and is almost entirely made up of rock.  Drumlins comprised of glacial sediments are very common in some areas of continental glaciation (Figure 4.3.1).

Figure 4.3.6 Bowyer Island, A Drumlin in Howe Sound, BC. Ice flow was from right to left.

A roche moutonée is another type of elongated erosional feature that has a steep and sometimes jagged down-ice end (Figure 4.3.7 left).  On a smaller scale still, glacial grooves (10s of cm to m wide) and glacial striae (mm to cm wide) are created by fragments of rock embedded in the ice at the base of a glacier (Figure 4.3.7 left and right).  Glacial striae are very common on rock surfaces eroded by both alpine and continental glaciers.

Figure 4.3.7 Left: A Roche Moutonée with Glacial Striae Near to Squamish, BC. Right: Glacial Striae at the Same Location Near to Squamish. Ice flow was from right to left in both cases.

Lakes are typical features of glacial environments.  A lake that is confined to a glacial cirque is known as a tarn (Figure 4.3.8).  Tarns are common in areas of alpine glaciation because the ice that forms a cirque typically carves out a depression that then fills with water.

Figure 4.3.8 Lower Thornton Lake, a Tarn, in the Northern Cascades National Park, Washington.

A lake that occupies a glacial valley, but is not confined to a cirque, is known as a finger lake.  In some cases a finger lake is confined by a dam formed by an end moraine, in which case it may be called a moraine lake (or moraine-dammed lake) (Figure 4.3.9).

Figure 4.3.9 Peyto Lake in the Canadian Rockies: Both a Finger Lake and a Moraine lake as it is Dammed by an End-Moraine (on the right).

In areas of continental glaciation the crust is depressed by the weight of glacial ice that is up to 4000 m thick.  Basins are formed along the edges of continental glaciers (except for those that cover entire continents like Antarctica and Greenland and terminate in the ocean), and these basins fill with glacial melt water.  Many such lakes, some of them huge, existed at various times along the southern edge of the Laurentide Ice Sheet.  One example is Glacial Lake Missoula, which formed within Idaho and Montana, just south of the BC border.  During the latter part of the last glaciation (30 to 15 ka) the ice holding back Lake Missoula retreated enough to allow some of the lake water to start flowing out and this then escalated into a massive and rapid outflow (over days to weeks) during which time much of the volume of the lake drained along the valley of the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.  It is estimated that this type of flooding happened at least 25 times over that period, and in many cases the rate of outflow was equivalent to the discharge of all of the Earth’s current rivers combined.  The record of these massive floods is preserved in the Channelled Scablands of Washington and Oregon (Figure 4.3.10).

Figure 4.3.10 Potholes Coulee Near to Wenatchee, Washington, One of Many Basins that Received Lake Missoula Floodwaters During the Late Pleistocene. Here the water flowed from right to left, over the cliff and into this basin.
Another type of glacial lake is a kettle lake. These are discussed in Section 4.4 in the context of glacial deposits. An example is shown on Figure 4.4.7.

Media Attributions



4.3 Glacial Erosion Copyright © by Steve Earle. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book