What are the components of a glacier?

Crevasses on Crane Glacier
Crevasses rumple the surface of Crane Glacier in Antarctica. —Credit: Ted Scambos, NSIDC

Glaciers are dynamic, and several elements contribute to glacier formation and growth. Snow falls in the accumulation area, usually the part of the glacier with the highest elevation, adding to the glacier's mass. As the snow slowly accumulates and turns to ice, and the glacier increases in weight, the weight begins to deform the ice, forcing the glacier to flow downhill. Further down the glacier, usually at a lower altitude, is the ablation area, where most of the melting and evaporation occur. Between these two areas a balance is reached, where snowfall equals snowmelt, and the glacier is in equilibrium. Whenever this equilibrium is disturbed, either by increased snowfall or by excessive melting, the glacier either advances or retreats at more than its normal pace.

Several visible features are common to most glaciers. At locations where a glacier flows rapidly, friction creates giant cracks called crevasses, which may make travel across a glacier treacherous. Other common glacial features are moraines, created when the glacier pushes or carries rocky debris as it moves. These long, dark bands of debris are visible on top and along the edges of glaciers. Medial moraines run down the middle of a glacier, lateral moraines along the sides, and terminal moraines are found at the terminus, or snout, of a glacier. Sometimes one glacier flows into another, creating combined wider moraines. Often these linear deposits of rocks are left behind, almost intact, after the ice in a glacier has melted away. Studying these rocky debris remnants, and the sediments that were once beneath the glacier, is the subject of glacial geology and geomorphology.

The process of melt can add components to a glacier, including supraglacial lakes (meltwater surface ponds) and moulins (nearly vertical channels formed by meltwater).

Glacier mice sometimes thrive on glacial surfaces. These mice are not rodents, but instead balls of moss containing tiny ecosystems. Blobs of dust or organic debris become the nuclei of glacier mice, and as the clumps are battered by wind, they roll around on glacier surfaces, gathering moss. Examinations of glacier-mice interiors have found springtails, tardigrades, and nematode worms.

Glacier critters
Left to right: Glacier mice, springtails, tardigrade (water bear). —Credit: Photographs from Flikr user Carsten ten Brink (left), Flickr user Ryszrd (middle), NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (right).

Last updated: 16 March 2020