Glaciers are flowing masses of ice, created by years of snowfall and cold temperatures. Approximately one-tenth of Earth is covered by glaciers, including Antarctica and parts of Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Russia, and Alaska. Mountainous regions on every continent except Australia also contain glaciers. Glaciers have enormous powers to reshape the face of Earth. Even today, glaciers are altering how our planet looks, and they hold clues to its past and future.
How glaciers form
Glaciers are created in areas where the air temperature never gets warm enough to completely melt snow. After a snowfall, some or most of the snow may melt when it comes into contact with warmer ground temperatures. As the air temperature drops, the melted snow refreezes, turning into small ice granules called firn or névé (pronounced nay-VAY). As additional layers of snow accumulate on top, the firn underneath is compacted. When the accumulation reaches about 150 feet (46 meters) deep, the weight and pressure cause the lower layers to recrystallize into solid ice. As years pass, snow accumulates and the slab of ice grows steadily thicker. Eventually the mound of ice becomes too massive to sit still, and gravity pulls the ice downhill. Once the ice begins to move, it is considered a glacier.
Types of glaciers
Glaciers that flow down a valley from high mountainous regions usually follow paths originally formed by rivers of snowmelt in the spring and summer. These valley or mountain glaciers end in a valley or ocean, and tend to increase the sharpness and steepness of the surrounding mountains along the way. In the Alps, a mountain system in south-central Europe, there are more than 1,200 valley glaciers.
Piedmont glaciers are large, gently sloping ice mounds. Also known as lakes of ice, piedmont glaciers form when a valley glacier reaches the lowlands or plain at the foot of a mountain and spreads out. These are common in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, and Antarctica.
Glaciers that form in small valleys on the sides of mountains are called ice caps. Found in Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica, ice caps usually do not move out of their basinlike area.
The largest form of glacier is called a continental glacier, a huge ice sheet that moves slowly outward from its center. Ice sheets may cover hundreds of thousands of square miles, and are so heavy that they cause the rock underneath to compress into Earth. The largest continental glacier is found on Antarctica, where the ice is more than 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) thick at its center, and hides entire mountain ranges beneath its surface. It extends more than 5 million square miles (12.9 million square kilometers). The Antarctic ice sheet accounts for 90 percent of all the ice in the world, and contains more water than all of Earth’s rivers and lakes put together.