Glacier Types: Surging

When a glacier surges, it flows more quickly, sometimes moving 10 to 100 times faster than it normally does. Some glaciers surge in cycles throughout a year, or surge only periodically, perhaps between 15 and 100 years. Some glaciers in Alaska have surged across roads and rivers, blocking access and damming water.

Historic photograph of Columbia Glacier, Alaska, 1909Columbia Glacier, located in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, surges periodically. This photograph from 1909 shows the terminus of the glacier knocking over trees as it advanced. —Credit: Photograph by Ulysses Sherman Grant. 1909. Columbia Glacier: From the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center. Digital media.

Historic photograph of Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier, Alaska, 1941Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier knocked over trees when it surged in 1941, crossing terrain not covered since the eighteenth century. Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier is located in the coastal mountains of southeast Alaska and is a tributary of Taku Glacier. —Credit: Photograph by William Osgood Field. 1941. Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier: From the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center. Digital media.

Satellite image of Medvezhiy Glacier, Tajikistan, 2011In the early summer of 2011, the Medvezhiy Glacier in Tajikistan slid abruptly down its valley and for a greater distance than it has in at least 22 years. The sudden downhill slide of the glacier raised concern among glaciologists and emergency management groups about a potential glacial outburst flood that could flow down into the Vanch River valley. According to satellite imagery and reports from local scientists, the glacier has moved roughly 800 to 1,000 meters (875 to 1,094 yards) since June 2011. The glacier normally moves 200 to 400 meters (219 to 437 yards) in an entire year. Glaciologists describe it as a pulsating glacier with periodic surging; the most recent prior surges were 1989 and 2001. —Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team and the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Mike Carlowicz, with background information from Erkin Huseinov and Viktor Novikov.