How are glaciers formed?

Hanging Glacier, Jasper National Park, Canada. —Credit: Tom Lowell's Glacier Image Database, University of Cincinnati.

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 two winters, the snow turns into firn—an intermediate state between snow and glacier ice. At this point, it is about half 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 over a hundred years.