Glacial Movement

A glacier moves as a solid rather than as a liquid, as is indicated by the formation of crevasses (see crevasse). The center of a glacier moves more rapidly than the sides and the surface more rapidly than the bottom, because the sides and bottom are held back by friction. The rate of flow depends largely on the volume of ice in movement, the slope of the ground over which it is moving, the slope of the upper surface of the ice, the amount of water the ice contains, the amount of debris it carries, the temperature, and the friction it encounters. Glaciers are always in movement, but the extent of the apparent movement depends on the rate of advance and the rate of melting. If the ice melts at its edge faster than it moves forward, the edge of the glacier retreats; if it moves more rapidly than it melts, the edge advances; it is stationary only if the rate of movement and the rate of melting are the same.

The causes of glacial movement are exceedingly complex and doubtless are not all operative on the same glacier at the same time. Important elements in glacial movement are melting under pressure followed by refreezing, which may push the mass in the direction of least resistance; sliding or shearing of layers of ice one on top of the other; and rearrangement of the granules when pressure causes melting. Sudden, rapid movements of glaciers, called glacier surges, have been observed in Alaskan and other glaciers, with evidence for such abnormal movements as the crumpled lines of surface debris found on them. It is thought that the relatively sudden movement and melting of glaciers may be indicative of climate warming.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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