1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Glacier

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GLACIER (adopted from the French; from glace, ice, Lat. glacies), a mass of compacted ice originating in a snow-field. Glaciers are formed on any portion of the earth’s surface that is permanently above the snow-line. This line varies locally in the same latitudes, being in some places higher than in others, but in the main it may be described as an elliptical shell surrounding the earth with its longest diameter in the tropics and its shortest in the polar regions, where it touches sea-level. From the extreme regions of the Arctic and Antarctic circles this cold shell swells upwards into a broad dome, from 15,000 to 18,000 ft. high over the tropics, truncating, as it rises, a number of peaks and mountain ranges whose upper portions like all regions above this thermal shell receive all their moisture in the form of snow. Since the temperature above the snow-line is below freezing point evaporation is very slight, and as the snow is solid it tends to accumulate in snow-fields, where the snow of one year is covered by that of the next, and these are wrapped over many deeper layers that have fallen in previous years. If these piles of snow were rigid and immovable they would increase in height until the whole field rose above the zone of ordinary atmospheric precipitation, and the polar ice-caps would add a load to these regions that would produce far-reaching results. The mountain regions also would rise some miles in height, and all their features would be buried in domes of snow some miles in thickness. When, however, there is sufficient weight the mass yields to pressure and flows outwards and downwards. Thus a balance of weight and height is established, and the ice-field is disintegrated principally at the edges, the surplus in polar regions being carried off in the form of icebergs, and in mountain regions by streams that flow from the melting ends of the glaciers.

Formation.—The formation of glaciers is in all cases due to similar causes, namely, to periodical and intermittent falls of snow. After a snow-fall there is a period of rest during which the snow becomes compacted by pressure and assumes the well-known granular character seen in banks and patches of ordinary snow that lie longest upon the ground when the snow is melting. This is the firn or névé. The next fall of snow covers and conceals the névé, but the light fresh crystals of this new snow in turn become compacted to the coarsely crystalline granular form of the underlying layer and become névé in turn. The process goes on continually; the lower layers become subject to greater and greater pressure, and in consequence become gradually compacted into dense clear ice, which, however, retains its granular crystalline texture throughout. The upper layers of névé are usually stratified, owing to some individual peculiarity in the fall, or to the accumulation of dust or débris upon the surface before it is covered by fresh snow. This stratification is often visible on the emerging glacier, though it is to be distinguished from the foliation planes caused by shearing movement in the body of the glacier ice.

Types.—The snow-field upon which a glacier depends is always formed when snow-fall is greater than snow-waste. This occurs under varying conditions with a differently resulting type of glacier. There are limited fields of snow in many mountain regions giving rise to long tongues of ice moving slowly down the valleys and therefore called “valley glaciers.” The greater part of Greenland is covered by an ice-cap extending over nearly 400,000 sq. m., forming a kind of enormous continuous glacier on its lower slopes. The Antarctic ice region is believed to extend over more than 3,000,000 sq. m. Each of these continental fields, besides producing block as distinguished from tongue glaciers, sends into the sea a great number of icebergs during the summer season. These ice-caps covering great regions are by far the most important types. Between these “polar” or “continental glaciers” and the “alpine” type there are many grades. Smaller detached ice-caps may rest upon high plateaus as in Iceland, or several tongues of ice coming down neighbouring valleys may splay out into convergent lobes on lower ground and form a “piedmont glacier” such as the Malaspina Glacier in Alaska. When the snow-field lies in a small depression the glacier may remain suspended in the hollow and advance no farther than the edge of the snow-field. This is called a “cliff-glacier,” and is not uncommon in mountain regions. The end of a larger glacier, or the edge of an ice-sheet, may reach a precipitous cliff, where the ice will break from the edge of the advancing mass and fall in blocks to the lower ground, where a “reconstructed glacier” will be formed from the fragments and advance farther down the slope.

When a glacier originates upon a dome-shaped or a level surface the ice will deploy radially in all directions. When a snow-field is formed above steep valleys separated by high ridges the ice will flow downwards in long streams. If the valleys under the snow-fields are wide and shallow the resultant glaciers will broaden out and partially fill them, and in all cases, since the conditions of glacier formation are similar, the resultant form and the direction of motion will depend upon the amount of ice and the form of the surface over which the glacier flows. A glacier flowing down a narrow gorge to an open valley, or on to a plain, will spread at its foot into a fan-shaped lobe as the ice spreads outwards while moving downwards. An ice-cap is in the main thickest at the centre, and thins out at the edges. A valley glacier is thickest at some point between its source and its end, but nearer to its source than to its termination, but its thickness at various portions will depend upon the contour of the valley floor over which the glacier rides, and may reach many hundreds of feet. At its centre the Greenland ice-cap is estimated to be over 5000 ft. thick. In all cases the glacier ends where the waste of ice is greater than the supply, and since the relationship varies in different years, or cycles of years, the end of a glacier may advance or retreat in harmony with greater or less snow-fall or with cooler or hotter summers. There seems to be a cycle of inclusive contraction and expansion of from 35 to 40 or 50 years. At present the ends of the Swiss glaciers are cradled in a mass of moraine-stuff due to former extension of the glaciers, and investigations in India show that in some parts of the Himalayas the glaciers are retreating as they are in North America and even in the southern hemisphere (Nature, January 2, 1908, p. 201).

Movement.—The fact that a glacier moves is easily demonstrated; the cause of the movement is pressure upon a yielding mass; the nature of the movement is still under discussion. Rows of stakes or stones placed in line across a glacier are found to change their position with respect to objects on the bank and also with regard to each other. The posts in the centre of the ice-stream gradually move away from those at the side, proving that the centre moves faster than the sides. It has also been proved that the surface portions move more rapidly than the deeper layers and that the motion is slowest at the sides and bottom where friction is greatest.

The rate of motion past the same spot is not uniform. Heat accelerates it, cold arrests it, and the pressure of a large amount of water stimulates the flow. The rate of flow under the same conditions varies at different parts of the glacier directly as the thickness of ice, the steepness of slope and the smoothness of rocky floor. Generally speaking, the rate of motion depends upon the amount of ice that forms the “head” pressure, the slope of the under surface and of the upper surface, the nature of the floor, the temperature and the amount of water present in the ice. The ordinary rate of motion is very slow. In Switzerland it is from 1 or 2 in. to 4 ft. per day, in Alaska 7 ft., in Greenland 50 to 60 ft., and occasionally 100 ft. per day in the height of summer under exceptional conditions of quantity of ice and of water and slope. Measurements of Swiss glaciers show that near the ice foot where wastage is great there is very little movement, and observations upon the inland border of Greenland ice show that it is almost stationary over long distances. In many aspects the motion of a body of ice resembles that of a body of water, and an alpine glacier is often called an ice-river, since like a river it moves faster in the centre than at the sides and at the top faster than at the bottom. A glacier follows a curve in the same way as a river, and there appear to be ice swirls and eddies as well as an upward creep on shelving curves recalling many features of stream action. The rate of motion of both ice-stream and river is accelerated by quantity and steepness of slope and retarded by roughness of bed, but here the comparison ends, for temperature does not affect the rate of water motion, nor will a liquid crack into crevasses as a glacier does, or move upwards over an adverse slope as a glacier always does when there is sufficient “head” of ice above it. So that although in many respects ice behaves as a viscous fluid the comparison with such a fluid is not perfect. The cause of glacier motion must be based upon some more or less complex considerations. The flakes of snow are gradually transformed into granules because the points and angles of the original flakes melt and evaporate more readily than the more solid central portions, which become aggregated round some master flake that continues to grow in the névé at the expense of its smaller neighbours, and increases in size until finally the glacier ice is composed of a mass of interlocked crystalline granules, some as large as a walnut, closely compacted under pressure with the principal crystalline axes in various directions. In the upper portions of the glacier movement due to pressure probably takes place by the gliding of one granule over another. In this connexion it must be noted that pressure lowers the melting point of ice while tension raises it, and at all points of pressure there is therefore a tendency to momentary melting, and also to some evaporation due to the heat caused by pressure, and at the intermediate tension spaces between the points of pressure this resultant liquid and vapour will be at once re-frozen and become solid. The granular movement is thus greatly facilitated, while the body of ice remains in a crystalline solid condition. In this connexion it is well to remember that the pressure of the glacier upon its floor will have the same result, but the effect here is a mass-effect and facilitates the gliding of the ice over obstacles, since the friction produces heat and the pressure lowers the melting point, so that the two causes tend to liquefy the portion where pressure is greatest and so to “lubricate” the prominences and enable the glacier to slide more easily over them, while the liquid thus produced is re-frozen when the pressure is removed.

In polar regions of very low temperature a very considerable amount of pressure must be necessary before the ice granules yield to momentary liquefaction at the points of pressure, and this probably accounts for the extreme thickness of the Arctic and Antarctic ice-caps where the slopes are moderate, for although equally low temperatures are found in high Alpine snow-fields the slopes there are exceedingly steep and motion is therefore more easily produced.

Observations made upon the Greenland glaciers indicate a considerable amount of “shearing” movement in the lower portions of a glacier. Where obstacles in the bed of the glacier arrest the movement of the ice immediately above it, or where the lower portion of the glacier is choked by débris, the upper ice glides over the lower in shearing planes that are sometimes strongly marked by débris caught and pushed forwards along these planes of foliation. It must be remembered that there is a solid push from behind upon the lower portion of a glacier, quite different from the pressure of a body of water upon any point, for the pressure of a fluid is equal in all directions, and also that this push will tend to set the crystalline granules in positions in which their crystalline axes are parallel along the gliding planes. The production of gliding planes is in some cases facilitated by the descent into the glacier of water melted during summer, where it expands in freezing and pushes the adjacent ice away from it, forming a surface along which movement is readily established.

If under all circumstances the glacier melted under pressure at the bottom, glacial abrasion would be nearly impossible, since every small stone and fragment of rock would rotate in a liquid shell as the ice moved forward, but since the pressure is not always sufficient to produce melting, the glacier sometimes remains dry at its base; rock fragments are held firmly; and a dry glacier may thus become a graving tool of enormous power. Whatever views may be adopted as to the causes of glacier motion, the peculiar character of glacier ice as distinct from homogeneous river or pond ice must be kept in view, as well as the characteristic tendency of water to expand in freezing, the lowering of the melting point of ice under pressure, the raising of the melting point under tension, the production of gliding or shearing planes under pressure from above, the presence in summer of a considerable quantity of water in the lower portions of the glacier which are thus loosened, the cracking of ice (as into crevasses), under sudden strain, and the regelation of ice in contact. A result of this last process is that fissures are not permanent, but having been produced by the passage of ice over an obstruction, they subsequently become healed when the ice proceeds over a flatter bed. Finally it must be remembered that although glacier ice behaves in some sense like a viscous fluid its condition is totally different, since “a glacier is a crystalline rock of the purest and simplest type, and it never has other than the crystalline state.”

Characteristics.—The general appearance of a glacier varies according to its environment of position and temperature. The upper portion is hidden by névé and often by freshly fallen snow, and is smooth and unbroken. During the summer, when little snow falls, the body of the glacier moves away from the snow-field and a gaping crevasse of great depth is usually established called the bergschrund, which is sometimes taken as the upper limit of the glacier. The glacier as it moves down the valley may become “loaded” in various ways. Rock-falls send periodical showers of stones upon it from the heights, and these are spread out into long lines at the glacier sides as the ice moves downwards carrying the rock fragments with it. These are the “lateral moraines.” When two or more glaciers descending adjacent valleys converge into one glacier one or more sides of the higher valleys disappear, and the ice that was contained in several valleys is now carried by one. In the simplest case where two valleys converge into one the two inner lateral moraines meet and continue to stream down the larger valley as one “median moraine.” Where several valleys meet there are several such parallel median moraines, and so long as the ice remains unbroken these will be carried upon the surface of the glacier and finally tipped over the end. There is, however, differential heating of rock and ice, and if the stones carried are thin they tend to sink into the ice because they absorb heat readily and melt the ice under them. Dust has the same effect and produces “dust wells” that honeycomb the upper surface of the ice with holes into which the dust sinks. If the moraine rocks are thick they prevent the ice under them from melting in sunlight, and isolated blocks often remain supported upon ice-pillars in the form of ice tables, which finally collapse, so that such rocks may be scattered out of the line of the moraine. As the glacier descends into the lower valleys it is more strongly heated, and surface streams are established in consequence that flow into channels caused by unequal melting of the ice and finally plunge into crevasses. These crevasses are formed by strains established as the central parts drag away from the sides of the glacier and the upper surface from the lower, and more markedly by the tension due to a sudden bend in the glacier caused by an inequality in its bed which must be over-ridden. These crevasses are developed at right angles to the strain and often produce intersecting fissures in several directions. The morainic material is gradually dispersed by the inequalities produced, and is further distributed by the action of superficial streams until the whole surface is strewn with stones and débris, and presents, as in the lower portions of the Mer de Glace, an exceedingly dirty appearance. Many blocks of stone fall into the gaping crevasses and much loose rock is carried down as “englacial material” in the body of the glacier. Some of it reaches the bottom and becomes part of the “ground moraine” which underlies the glacier, at least from the bergschrund to the “snout,” where much of it is carried away by the issuing stream and spread finally on to the plains below. It appears that a very considerable amount of degradation is caused under the bergschrund by the mass of ice “plucking” and dragging great blocks of rock from the side of the mountain valley where the great head of ice rests in winter and whence it begins to move in summer. These blocks and many smaller fragments are carried downwards wedged in the ice and cause powerful abrasion upon the rocky floor, rasping and scoring the channel, producing conspicuous striae, polishing and rounding the rock surfaces, and grinding the contained fragments as well as the surface over which it passes into small fragments and fine powder, from which “boulder clay” or “till” is finally produced. Emerging, then, from the snow-field as pure granular ice the glacier gradually becomes strewn and filled with foreign material, not only from above but also, as is very evident in some Greenland glaciers, occasionally from below by masses of fragments that move upwards along gliding planes, or are forced upwards by slow swirls in the ice itself.

As a glacier is a very brittle body any abrupt change in gradient will produce a number of crevasses, and these, together with those produced by dragging strains, will frequently wedge the glacier into a mass of pinnacles or séracs that may be partially healed but are usually evident when the melting end of the glacier emerges suddenly from a steep valley. Here the streams widen the weaker portions and the moraine rocks fall from the end to produce the “terminal” moraine, which usually lies in a crescentic heap encircling the glacier snout, whence it can only be moved by a further advance of the glacier or by the ordinary slow process of atmospheric denudation.

In cases where no rock falls upon the surface there is a considerable amount of englacial material due to upturning either over accumulated ground débris or over structural inequalities in the rock floor. This is well seen at the steep sides and ends of Greenland glaciers, where material frequently comes to the surface of the melting ice and produces median and lateral moraines, besides appearing in enormous “eyes” surrounded in the glacial body by contorted and foliated ice and sometimes producing heaps and embankments as it is pushed out at the end of the melting ice.

The environment of temperature requires consideration. At the upper or dorsal portion of the glacier there is a zone of variable (winter and summer) temperature, beneath which, if the ice is thick enough, there is a zone of constant temperature which will be about the mean annual temperature of the region of the snow-field. Underlying this there is a more or less constant ventral or ground temperature, depending mainly upon the internal heat of the earth, which is conducted to the under surface of the glacier where it slowly melts the ice, the more readily because the pressure lowers the melting point considerably, so that streams of water run constantly from beneath many glaciers, adding their volume to the springs which issue from the rock. The middle zone of constant temperature is wedge-shaped in “alpine” glaciers, the apex pointing downwards to the zone of waste. The upper zone of variable temperature is thinnest in the snow-field where the mean temperature is lowest, and entirely dominant in the snout end of the glacier where the zone of constant temperature disappears. Two temperature wedges are thus superposed base to point, the one being thickest where the other is thinnest, and both these lie upon the basal film of temperature where the escaping earth-heat is strengthened by that due to friction and pressure. The cold wave of winter may pass right through a thin glacier, or the constant temperature may be too low to permit of the ice melting at the base, in which cases the glacier is “dry” and has great eroding power. But in the lower warmer portions water running through crevasses will raise the temperature, and increase the strength of the downward heat wave, while the mean annual temperature being there higher, the combined result will be that the glacier will gradually become “wet” at the base and have little eroding power, and it will become more and more wet as it moves down the lower valley zone of ice-waste, until at last the balance is reached between waste and supply and the glacier finally disappears.

If the mean annual temperature be 20° F., and the mean winter temperature be −12° F., as in parts of Greenland, all the ice must be considerably below the melting point, since the pressure of ice a mile in depth lowers the melting point only to 30° F., and the earth-heat is only sufficient to melt 1/4 in. of ice in a year. Therefore in these regions, and in snow-fields and high glaciers with an equal or lower mean temperature than 20° F., the glacier will be “dry” throughout, which may account for the great eroding power stated to exist near the bergschrund in glaciers of an alpine type, which usually have their origin on precipitous slopes.

A considerable amount of ice-waste takes place by water-drainage, though much is the result of constant evaporation from the ice surface. The lower end of a glacier is in summer flooded by streams of water that pour along cracks and plunge into crevasses, often forming “pot-holes” or moulins where stones are swirled round in a glacial “mill” and wear holes in the solid rock below. Some of these streams issue in a spout half way up the glacier’s end wall, but the majority find their way through it and join the water running along the glacier floor and emerging where the glacier ends in a large glacial stream.

Results of Glacial Action.—A glacier is a degrading and an aggrading agent. Much difference of opinion exists as to the potency of a glacier to alter surface features, some maintaining that it is extraordinarily effective, and considering that a valley glacier forms a pronounced cirque at the region of its origin and that the cirque is gradually cut backward until a long and deep valley is formed (which becomes evident, as in the Rocky Mountains, in an upper valley with “reversed grade” when the glacier disappears), and also that the end of a glacier plunging into a valley or a fjord will gouge a deep basin at its region of impact. The Alaskan and Norwegian fjords and the rock basins of the Scottish lochs are adduced as examples. Other writers maintain that a glacier is only a modifying and not a dominant agent in its effects upon the land-surface, considering, for example, that a glacier coming down a lateral valley will preserve the valley from the atmospheric denudation which has produced the main valley over which the lateral valley “hangs,” a result which the believers in strong glacial action hold to be due to the more powerful action of the main glacier as contrasted with the weaker action of that in the lateral valley. Both the advocates and the opponents of strenuous ice action agree that a V-shaped valley of stream erosion is converted to a U-shaped valley of glacial modification, and that rock surfaces are rounded into roches moutonnées, and are grooved and striated by the passage of ice shod with fragments of rock, while the subglacial material is ground into finer and finer fragments until it becomes mud and “rock-flour” as the glacier proceeds. In any case striking results are manifest in any formerly glaciated region. The high peaks rise into pinnacles, and ridges with “house-roof” structure, above the former glacier, while below it the contours are all rounded and typically subdued. A landscape that was formerly completely covered by a moving ice-cap has none but these rounded features of dome-shaped hills and U-shaped valleys that at least bear evidence to the great modifying power that a glacier has upon a landscape.

There is no conflict of opinion with regard to glacial aggradation and the distribution of superglacial, englacial and subglacial material, which during the active existence of a glacier is finally distributed by glacial streams that produce very considerable alluviation. In many regions which were covered by the Pleistocene ice-sheet the work of the glacier was arrested by melting before it was half done. Great deposits of till and boulder clay that lay beneath the glaciers were abandoned in situ, and remain as an unsorted mixture of large boulders, pebbles and mingled fragments, embedded in clay or sand. The lateral, median and terminal moraines were stranded where they sank as the ice disappeared, and together with perched blocks (roches perchées) remain as a permanent record of former conditions which are now found to have existed temporarily in much earlier geological times. In glaciated North America lateral moraines are found that are 500 to 1000 ft. high and in northern Italy 1500 to 2000 ft. high. The surface of the ground in all these places is modified into the characteristic glaciated landscape, and many formerly deep valleys are choked with glacial débris either completely changing the local drainage systems, or compelling the reappearing streams to cut new channels in a superposed drainage system. Kames also and eskers (q.v.) are left under certain conditions, with many puzzling deposits that are clearly due to some features of ice-work not thoroughly understood.

See L. Agassiz, Études sur les glaciers (Neuchâtel, 1840) and Nouvelles Études . . . (Paris, 1847); N. S. Shaler and W. M. Davis, Glaciers (Boston, 1881); A. Penck, Die Begletscherung der deutschen Alpen (Leipzig, 1882); J. Tyndall, The Glaciers of the Alps (London, 1896); T. G. Bonney, Ice-Work, Past and Present (London, 1896); I. C. Russell, Glaciers of North America (Boston, 1897); E. Richter, Neue Ergebnisse und Probleme der Gletscherforschung (Vienna, 1899); F. Forel, Essai sur les variations périodiques des glaciers (Geneva, 1881 and 1900); H. Hess, Die Gletscher (Brunswick, 1904).  (E. C. Sp.)