Glaciers and Icecaps

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Glaciers are a big item when we talk about the world's water supply. Almost 10 percent of the world's land mass is currently covered with glaciers, mostly in places like Greenland and Antarctica. You can think of a glacier as a frozen river, and like rivers, they "flow" downhill, erode the landscape, and move water along in the Earth's water cycle.

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Glaciers and icecaps: storehouses of freshwater

Muir and Riggs glaciers flowing into a lake in Alaska

Muir and Riggs Glaceris, Alaska.

Credit: Bruce Molnia, USGS

Even though you've maybe never seen a glacier or massive extents of ice, they are a big item when we talk about the world's water supply. Almost 10 percent of the world's land mass is currently covered with glaciers and ice caps, mostly in places like Greenland and Antarctica. Glaciers are important features in Earth's water cycle and affect the volume, variability, and water quality of runoff in areas where they occur.

In a way, glaciers are just frozen rivers of ice flowing downhill. Glaciers begin life as snowflakes. When the snowfall in an area far exceeds the melting that occurs during summer, glaciers start to form. The weight of the accumulated snow compresses the fallen snow into ice. These "rivers" of ice are tremendously heavy, and if they are on land that has a downhill slope the whole ice patch starts to slowly grind its way downhill. These glaciers can vary greatly in size, from a football-field sized patch to an ice patch a hundred miles (161 kilometers) long.


Glaciers affect the landscape

Yosemite Valley, California is an example of a U shaped glacial valley

Yosemite Valley is a classic U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierra Nevada, California.

Credit: Alex Demas, USGS

Glaciers have had a profound effect on the topography (lay of the land) in some areas, as in the northern U.S. You can imagine how a trillion-ton ice cube can rearrange the landscape as it slowly grinds its way overland. In this picture you can see the bowl-shaped valley in a glacial valley in Wyoming where an ancient glacier forced its way through the landscape. Many lakes, such as the Great Lakes, and valleys have been carved out by ancient glaciers. A massive icecap can be found in Greenland, where practically the whole country is covered with ice (shouldn't it be called Whiteland)? The ice on Greenland approaches two miles (3.2 kilometers) in thickness in some places and is so heavy that some of the land has been compressed so much that it is way below sea level.

Here's a map of where glaciers and icecaps exist in the world. White areas show glaciers and ice sheets around the world. The white spots in the oceans are islands where glaciers are found. 

Satellite photo of the Earth, showing land masses covered in ice.

Ice ages and ice coverage of Earth's land masses come and go. The last ice age was about 20,000 years ago, where ice and glaciers extended southward deep into Europe and over Canada and into the northern United States. The ice has retreated in current times, but ice and glaciers still cover a significant amount of Earth's land masses, especially in Greenland and Antarctica.


Ice and glaciers come and go

There are many long-term weather patterns that the Earth goes through. The climate, on a global scale, is always changing, although usually not at a rate fast enough for people to notice. There have been many warm periods, such as when the dinosaurs lived and many cold periods, such as the last ice age of about 20,000 years ago. During the last ice age much of the northern hemisphere was covered in ice and glaciers, and, as this map of Europe shows.

Map showing extent of glaciers in Europe, 20,000 years ago

This map shows Europe during its last glaciation, about 20,000 to 70,000 years before present, in northern Europe called Weichselian Glaciation, in the Alpine Region Würm Glaciation.

Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Glaciers are still around today; tens of thousands of them are in Alaska. Climatic factors still affect them today and during the current warmer climate today, they can retreat in size at a rate easily measured on a yearly scale.


Some glacier and icecap facts

  • Glaciers store about 69% of the world's freshwater, and if all land ice melted the seas would rise about 230 feet¹ (70 meters)(NSIDC).
  • During the last ice age (when glaciers covered more land area than today) the sea level was about 400 feet (122 meters) lower than it is today. At that time, glaciers covered almost one-third of the land.
  • During the last warm spell, 125,000 years ago, the seas were about 18 feet (5.5 meters) higher than they are today. About three million years ago the seas could have been up to 165 feet (50 meters) higher.
  • North America's longest glacier is the Bering Glacier in Alaska, measuring 127 miles (204 kilometers) long.
  • Glacial ice can be very old—in some Canadian Arctic icecaps, ice at the base is over 100 000 years old.
  • The land underneath parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may be up to 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) below sea level, due to the weight of the ice.
  • Antarctic ice shelves may calve icebergs that are over 50 miles (80 kilometers) long.
  • The Kutiah Glacier in Pakistan holds the record for the fastest glacial surge. In 1953, it raced more than 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) in 3 months, averaging about 380 feet (112 meters) per day.
  • Glacial ice often appears blue when it has become very dense. Years of compression gradually make the ice denser over time, forcing out the tiny air pockets between crystals. When glacier ice becomes extremely dense, the ice absorbs all other colors in the spectrum and reflects primarily blue, which is what we see. When glacier ice is white, that usually means that there are many tiny air bubbles still in the ice.

►► Facts and myths about glaciers


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