How are glaciers formed?

Historic photograph of Kahiltna Glacier, 1942Kahiltna Glacier is a long mountain glacier, into which several tributary glaciers flow. —Credit: Photographer unknown. 1942. Kahiltna Glacier: From the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center. Digital media.

Glaciers begin to form when snow remains in the same area year-round, where enough snow accumulates to transform into ice. Each year, new layers of snow bury and compress the previous layers. This compression forces the snow to re-crystallize, forming grains similar in size and shape to grains of sugar. Gradually the grains grow larger and the air pockets between the grains get smaller, causing the snow to slowly compact and increase in density. After about a year, the snow turns into firn—an intermediate state between snow and glacier ice. At this point, it is about two-thirds as dense as water. Over time, larger ice crystals become so compressed that any air pockets between them are very tiny. In very old glacier ice, crystals can reach several inches in length. For most glaciers, this process takes more than a hundred years.