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Traditional Aboriginal Knowledge


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Definition of a glacier
Mountain Glaciers
Ice Sheets: (Continental glaciers)
Ice Shelves
The Formation of Glacial Ice
Changes in Glacier Size
Movement of Glaciers
Glacial Deposits
Glacial Ages
Causes of Glacial Ages

adapted to HTML from lecture notes of Prof. Stephen A. Nelson Tulane University

Glaciers constitute much of the Earth that makes up the cryosphere, the part of the Earth that remains below the freezing point of water. Most glacial ice today is found in the polar regions, above the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. While glaciers are of relatively minor importance today, evidence exists that the Earth's climate has undergone fluctuations in the past, and that the amount of the Earth's surface covered by glaciers has been much larger in the past than in the present. In fact, much of the topography in the northern part of North America, as well as in the high mountain regions of the west, owe their form to erosional and depositional processes of glaciers. The latest glaciation ended only 10,000 years ago.

Definition of a glacier

A glacier is a permanent (on a human time scale, because nothing on the Earth is really permanent) body of ice, consisting largely of recrystallized snow, that shows evidence of downslope or outward movement due to the pull of gravity.

Types of Glaciers

Mountain Glaciers

Ice Sheets: (Continental glaciers):

are the largest types of glaciers on Earth. They cover large areas of the land surface, including mountain areas. Modern ice sheets cover Greenland and Antarctica. These two ice sheets comprise about 95% of all glacial ice currently on Earth. They have an estimated volume of about 24 million km3. If melted, they contain enough water to raise sea level about 66m (216 ft.). This would cause serious problems for coastal cities (L.A., NY, Washington DC, New Orleans, Miami, SF etc). The Greenland ice sheet is in some places over 3000 m (9800 ft) thick and the weight of ice has depressed much of the crust of Greenland below sea level. Antarctica is covered by two large ice sheets that meet in the central part along the Transantarctic Mountains. These are the only truly polar ice sheet on earth (North Pole lies in an ocean covered by thin layer of ice.

Ice Shelves: Ice shelves

are sheets of ice floating on water and attached to land. They usually occupy coastal embayments, may extend hundreds of km from land and reach thicknesses of 1000 m.
Glaciers can also be classified by their internal temperature.

The Formation of Glacial Ice

Glaciers can only form at latitudes or elevations above the snowline, which is the elevation above which snow can form and remain present year round. The snowline, at present, lies at sea level in polar latitudes and rises up to 6000 m in tropical areas. Glaciers form in these areas if the snow becomes compacted, forcing out the air between the snowflakes. As compaction occurs, the weight of the overlying snow causes the snow to recrystallize and increase its grain-size, until it increases its density and becomes a solid block of ice.

Changes in Glacier Size

A glacier can change its size by Accumulation, which occurs by addition of snowfall, compaction and recrystallization, and Ablation, the loss of mass resulting from melting, usually at lower altitude, where temperatures may rise above freezing point in summer. Thus, depending on the balance between accumulation and ablation during a full season, the glacier can grow or shrink

Movement of Glaciers

Glaciers move to lower elevations under the force of gravity by two different processes:
Internal Flow -
called creep, results from deformation of the ice crystal structure - the crystals slide over each other like deck of cards. This type of movement is the only type that occurs in polar glaciers, but it also occurs in temperate glaciers. The upper portions of glaciers are brittle, when the lower portion deforms by internal flow, the upper portions may fracture to form large cracks called crevasses. Crevasses occur where the lower portion of a glacier flows over sudden change in topography

 Basal sliding -
meltwater at base of glacier reduces friction by lubricating the surface and allowing the glacier to slide across its bed. Polar glaciers are usually frozen to their bed and are thus too cold for this mechanism to occur.
The velocity of glacial ice changes throughout the glacier. The velocity is low next to the base of the glacier and where it is contact with valley walls. The velocity increases toward the center and upper parts of the glacier.


 is the modification of the land surface by the action of glaciers. Galciations have occurred so recently in N. America and Europe, that weathering, mass wasting, and stream erosion have not had time to alter the landscape. Thus, evidence of glacial erosion and deposition are still present. Since glaciers move, they can pick up and transport rocks and thus erode. Since they transport material and can melt, they can also deposit material. Glaciated landscapes are the result of both glacial erosion and glacial deposition.
Glacial Erosion

Landforms produced by mountain glaciers

Landforms produced by Ice Caps and Ice Sheets

Glacial Deposits

Since glaciers are solid they can transport all sizes of sediment, from huge house-sized boulders to fine-grained clay sized material. The glacier can carry this material on its surface or embedded within it. Thus, sediment transportation in a glacier is very much different than that in a stream. Thus, sediments deposited directly from melting of a glacial can range from very poorly sorted to better sorted, depending on how much water transport takes place after the ice melts. All sediment deposited as a result of glacial erosion is called Glacial Drift.

Ice Laid Deposits 

Glacial Ages

The last glaciation ended about 10,000 years ago. But the period between 10,000 years ago and 3 my ago (Pleistocene epoch) was a time of many glacial and interglacial ages.
During this period sea level fluctuated because: Based on evidence from glacial deposits and glacial erosion features geologists have been able to document at least 4 glaciations during the Pleistocene. But recent studies of deep-sea sediments and dating of these deposits suggest that there were at least 30 glaciations that occurred during the Pleistocene. This evidence comes from studies of fossils found in deep-sea sediment cores, and what they tell us about ocean surface temperatures in the past. The results come from studies of the isotopes of oxygen. During an interglaciation, on the other hand, the 16O that was tied up in glacial ice returns to the oceans causing a decrease in the 18O / 16O ratio of seawater.


Thus, we expect that during glaciations the 18O / 16O ratio in seawater will be high, and during interglaciations the 18O / 16O ratio in seawater will be low.
Since organisms that live in the oceans extract Oxygen from seawater to form their carbonate (CO3-2) shells, measuring the 18O / 16O ratio in the shells of dead organisms gives a record of past ocean temperatures. The record for the past two million years is shown below and in figure 11.30 on page 332 of your text. This suggests about 30 glaciations separated by interglaciations during the past 2 million years.
  During the last 1 million years it appears that each glacial - interglacial cycle has lasted about 100,000 years, but earlier cycles were about 40,000 years long.
Other periods of glaciation are known from the geologic record, mainly from preserved glacial striations and tillites (consolidated till). The earliest recognized glaciation occurred about 2.3 billion years ago, but at least 50 other glaciations are recognized to have occurred during the Paleozoic era.

Causes of Glacial Ages

In order to understand what causes these cycles of glacial - interglacial episodes we need a much better understanding of what causes global climate changes. Because human history is so short compared to the time scales on which global climate change occurs, we do not completely understand the causes. However, we can suggest a few reasons why climates fluctuate.
Astronomical Factors -

Atmospheric Factors
- the composition of the Earth's atmosphere can be gleaned from air bubbles trapped in ice in the polar ice sheets. Studying drill core samples of such glacial ice and their contained air bubbles reveals the following:
During past glaciations, the amount of CO2 and methane, both greenhouse gasses that tend to cause global warming, were lower than during interglacial episodes.


During past glaciations, the amount of dust in the atmosphere was higher than during interglacial periods, thus more heat was likely reflected from the Earth's atmosphere back into space.
The problem in unraveling what this means comes from not being able to understand if low greenhouse gas concentration and high dust content in the atmosphere caused the ice ages or if these conditions were caused by the ice ages.

Changes in Oceanic Circulation
- small changes in ocean circulation can amplify small changes in temperature variation produced by astronomical factors.
Other factors