Erosion by an Alpine glacier

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  09 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6257, pp. 193-195
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2386

You are currently viewing the abstract.

View Full Text

Log in to view the full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution

The glacial way of wearing away

The rate at which glaciers erode landscapes is an important but poorly constrained relationship. Herman et al. tackle this issue by considering the Franz Josef alpine glacier in New Zealand. The amount of sediment piling up at the edge of the glacier provided erosion rates, whereas remote sensing allowed for simultaneous tracking of glacial motion. The result was a nonlinear relationship, suggesting that fast glaciers are much more effective at gouging landscapes. This could explain the paradox of why long-term erosion rates are so much lower in polar regions with more permanent glaciers.

Science, this issue p. 193


Assessing the impact of glaciation on Earth’s surface requires understanding glacial erosion processes. Developing erosion theories is challenging because of the complex nature of the erosion processes and the difficulty of examining the ice/bedrock interface of contemporary glaciers. We demonstrate that the glacial erosion rate is proportional to the ice-sliding velocity squared, by quantifying spatial variations in ice-sliding velocity and the erosion rate of a fast-flowing Alpine glacier. The nonlinear behavior implies a high erosion sensitivity to small variations in topographic slope and precipitation. A nonlinear rate law suggests that abrasion may dominate over other erosion processes in fast-flowing glaciers. It may also explain the wide range of observed glacial erosion rates and, in part, the impact of glaciation on mountainous landscapes during the past few million years.

View Full Text

Stay Connected to Science