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19.4: Landforms of Alpine Glaciation

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    A region altered by an alpine glacier is depicted in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). Refer to this diagram as you read about the various landforms created by alpine glaciers.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Diagram of alpine glacial landforms (Source: Wikipedia, United States National Park Service. Public Domain.)

    The headwaters of stream tributaries serve as the birth place for alpine glaciers. The headwaters of tributary valleys lie at the highest elevation in the drainage basin of a mountain stream. Here snow accumulates to great thickness and starts to move down valley. As it moves outward from the zone of accumulation, the glacier scours away at the valley sides. The material eroded from the surface is transported the length of the glacier to the zone of ablation, where it is deposited.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Pawnee Cirque, Front Range, Colorado (Photo: M. Ritter)

    At the zone of accumulation where ice is accumulating, the glacier plucks rock from the head of the valley. The erosion creates a huge, amphitheater-like depression at the valley head called a cirque. icon_map.gif After the glacier melts away a tarn, or cirque lake icon_map.gif , may be found on the floor. Surrounding the floor are the massive curved side and headwalls of the cirque. A headwall crevasse known as a bergschrund forms where snow and compacted firn pull away from ice that remains frozen to the rock of the headwall. As alpine glaciers erode headward, they narrow the upland between ice sheets from opposite directions and a pyramid-shaped peak, called a horn is created.icon_map.gif When two adjacent cirques on opposite sides of a divide cut back and remove part of it, a sharp-edge notch or pass called a col is formed.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): U-shaped trough in the Alps (Photo: M. Ritter)

    The massive amount of ice that fills the main valley is from that which accumulates at the head of the valley plus that from all the tributary valleys that enter it. The enormous weight of the ice erodes away at the valley sides. The V-shape of the pre-existing stream valley now takes on the characteristic U-shaped of a glacial trough. icon_map.gif

    hanging valley
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Hanging valley in Yosemite National Park. (Courtesy USGS)

    Prior to glaciation, tributary streams entered the main stream at the elevation of the main channel. But during glaciation, tributary glaciers feeding into the main valley are smaller and do not erode their valleys as deep as the glacier that occupies the main valley. Tributary valleys are left hanging at a higher elevation above the main valley floor as a result of more intensive downward cutting by the main valley glacier. These hanging valleys create spectacular waterfalls. icon_map.gif

    Glaciers in adjacent tributary valleys scour away at the upland between them (an interfluve). As erosion of the interfluve continues, it is narrows into a serrated ridge known as an arête. icon_map.gif As mountain glaciers flow down valley they encounter exposed bed rock of varying resistance to erosion. The glacier will erode down into weaker rock but have to flow over the stronger rock. This creates a series of rock steps icon_map.gif composed of the more resistant rocks with small depression behind them where the weaker rock is exposed. Often these depressions are occupied with water to form staircase lakes. Connected by a small stream these lakes are also know as paternoster lakes.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Niwot Ridge arête, Colorado Front Range (Photo: M. Ritter)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Staircase lakes, Green Lakes Valley, Colorado Front Range. (Photo: M. Ritter)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Lateral and end moraine. (Courtesy Geological Survey of Canada)

    Glacial till is deposited along the valley sides as lateral moraine. icon_map.gif Till is transported and deposited at the nose of the glacier as an end moraine. The end or terminal moraine marks the furthest advance of the glacier. Behind the terminal moraine are found recessional moraines indicating positions of the glacier front during times of retreat. When lateral moraines merge upon entering a main glacial trough, medial moraines icon_map.gif are formed and run the length of the glacier.

    medial and lateral moraines
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Medial moraine forming from the merger of lateral moraines (Courtesy USGS)

    Video: "Hanging Glaciers" (Courtesy of UBC Virtual Soil Learning Resources)

    This page titled 19.4: Landforms of Alpine Glaciation is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael E. Ritter (The Physical Environment) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.