Glaciology - How it works


Ice, of course, is simply frozen water, and though it might appear to be a simple subject, it is not. Glaciologists classify differing types of ice, for instance, with regard to their levels of density, designating them with Roman numerals. The ice to which most of us are accustomed is classified as ice I. We will not be concerned with the other varieties of ice in the present context, but it should be noted that the ice in glaciers is quite different from the ice in an ice cube or even the ice on a pond in winter. These differences are a result of massive pressure, which reduces the air content of the ice in glaciers.

By definition, ice is composed of fresh water rather than saltwater. This is true even of icebergs, though they may float on the salty oceans. The reason is that water has a much higher freezing point than salt, and, therefore, when water freezes, very little of the salt remains joined to the water. Most of the salt is left behind in the form of a briny slush, and so much of Earth's fresh water supply actually is contained in great masses of ice, such as the glaciers of Antarctica.

Glaciology is defined as the study of ice, its forms, and its effects. This means that the glaciologist has a much wider scope than a geologist, meteorologist, or oceanographer, each of whom is concerned primarily with the geosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere, respectively. Though ice commonly is associated with the hydrosphere, where it appears on Earth's oceans, rivers, and lakes, it also is found on and even under the solid earth. There are even situations in which ice is found in the atmosphere.

Glaciology and Glaciers

Despite the wide distribution of ice on Earth and the many forms it takes, the work of most glaciologists is concerned primarily with ice as it appears in glaciers. A glacier is a large, typically moving mass of ice on or adjacent to a land surface. It does not flow, as water does; rather, it is moved by gravity, a consequence of its extraordinary weight.

Obviously, a glacier can form only in an extremely cold region—one so cold that the temperature never becomes warm enough for snow to melt completely. Some snow may melt as a result of contact with the ground, which is likely to be warmer than the snow itself, but when temperatures

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drop, it refreezes. A glacier starts with a layer of ice, on which snow gathers until refreezing gradually creates compacted layers of snow and ice.

As anyone who has ever held a snowball in his or her hand knows, snow is fluffy, or, to put it in more scientific terms, it is much less dense than ice. A sample of snow is about 80% air, but as ice accumulates over a layer of snow, the weight of the ice squeezes out most of the air. As the layers grow thicker and thicker, the weight reduces the air further, creating an extremely dense, thick layer of ice. Ultimately, the ice becomes so heavy that its weight begins to pull it downhill, at which point it becomes a glacier.

Glacial Temperature and Morphologic Characteristics

Glaciers may be classified according to either relative temperature or morphologic characteristics (i.e., in terms of its shape). In terms of temperature, a glacier may be "warm," meaning that it is close to the pressure melting point. Pressure melting point is defined as the temperature at which ice begins to melt under a given amount of pressure. It is commonly known that water melts at 32°F (0°C), but only under conditions of ordinary atmospheric pressure at sea level. At higher pressures, the melting point of water is lower, which means that it can remain liquid at temperatures below its ordinary freezing point. (The melting point and freezing point of a substance are always the same.)

A "warm" glacier, such as those that appear in the Alps, is relatively mobile, because it is at the pressure melting point. This kind of glacier contrasts with a "cold," or polar, glacier, in which the temperatures are well below the pressure melting point; in other words, despite the extremely high pressure, the temperature is so low that the ice will not melt. As their name suggests, polar glaciers are found at Earth's poles, which effectively means Antarctica, since the area of the North Pole is not a land surface. A third category of glacier, in terms of temperature, is a subpolar glacier, found (not surprisingly) in regions near the poles. Examples of subpolar glaciers, or ones in which the fringes of the glacier are colder than the interior, are found in Spits-bergen, islands belonging to Norway that sit in the Arctic Ocean, well to the north of Scandinavia.


In the classification of geologic sciences, glaciology often is grouped with geomorphology. The latter field of study is devoted to landforms, or notable topographical features, and the forces and processes that have shaped them. Among those forces and processes are glaciers, which can be viewed in terms of their shape, the locale in which they form, and their effect on the contour of the land.

Alpine or mountain glaciers flow down a valley from a high mountainous region, typically following a path carved out by rivers or melting snow in warmer periods. They move toward valleys or the ocean, and in the process they exert considerable impact on the surrounding mountains, increasing the sharpness and steepness of these landforms. The rugged terrain in the vicinity of the Himalayas and the Andes, as well as the alpine regions of the Cascade Range and Rocky Mountains in the United States, are partly the result of weathering caused by these glaciers.

The glacial forms found in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, and Antarctica are often piedmont glaciers, large mounds of ice that slope gently. Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica as well as Norway are also home to cirque glaciers, which are relatively small and wide in proportion to their length. Though they experience considerable movement in place, they usually do not move out of the basinlike areas in which they are formed.

Other Ice Formations

There are several other significant varieties of ice formation, including ice caps, ice fields, and ice sheets. An ice cap, though much bigger than a glacier, typically has an area of less than 19,300 sq. mi. (50,000 sq km). Nonetheless, its mass is such that it exerts enormous weight on the land surface, and this exertion of force allows it to flow.

At the center of an ice cap or an ice sheet is an ice dome, and at the edges are ice shelves and outlet glaciers. Symmetrical and convex (i.e., like the outside of a bowl), an ice dome is a mass of ice often thicker than 9,800 ft. (3,000 m). An outlet glacier is a rapidly moving stream of ice that extends from an ice dome. Ice shelves, at the far outer edges, extend into the oceans, typically ending in cliffs as high as 98 ft. (30 m). Ice fields are similar to ice caps; the main difference is that the ice field is nearly level and lacks an ice dome. There are enormous variations in size for ice fields. Some may be no larger than 1.9 sq. mi. (5 sq km), while at different times in Earth's history, others have been as large as continents.

The most physically impressive of all ice formations, an ice sheet is a vast expanse of ice that gradually moves outward from its center. Ice sheets are usually at least 19,300 sq. mi. (50,000 sq km) and, like ice caps, consist of ice domes and outlet glaciers, with outlying ice shelves. Given their even greater size compared with ice caps, ice sheets exert still more force on the solid earth beneath them. They cause the rock underneath to compress, and, therefore, if an ice sheet ever melts, Earth's crust actually will rise upward in that area.

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