What Is a Glacial Moraine? - Definition and Types

By German Portillo. November 7, 2023
What Is a Glacial Moraine? - Definition and Types

Glacial moraines are large deposits of debris which are left over from the movements of glaciers. However, they are not simply waste byproducts created by glaciers. When we observe the structure and form of glaciers, we can see they are divided into various parts. The moraine is a fundamental part of this glacial structure, although they are left as deposits underneath and at the edges of glaciers. They are composed of a heterogeneous mixture of rock and loose deposits that are called tills. Moraines play a fundamental role in the transformation of the glacial landscape.

If you want to know more about how a glacier works, thedailyECO asks what is a glacial moraine? We provide a definition and types of moraines to understand how they are formed and what impact they have on glacial environments.

You may also be interested in: What Is Glacial Erosion?

What are glacial moraines and how are they formed?

Also known as glacial tills, glacial moraines are geological features that form through the action of glaciers, the latter being large masses of ice that move slowly across the Earth. These moraines are accumulations of sediment, rocks and other materials that are transported and deposited by the moving ice.

The formation of these geological features is a gradual process that involves a series of stages:

  1. Snow accumulation: it all starts with the accumulation of snow in the region where the glacier is located. Snow accumulates in layers over time due to winter precipitation that exceeds the melting and sublimation of snow during the summer.

  2. Compression and transformation: over time, deeper snow layers compress under the weight of the upper layers. As the snow compacts, it transforms into glacial ice. This compression process is essential for the formation of a glacier.

  3. Ice movement: glaciers move slowly due to their own weight and the action of gravity. As the ice flows, it acts as a conveyor belt, picking up sediment and rock from the underlying bed and sides of the glacial valley.

  4. Sediment collection: the glacier collects a wide range of sediments as it slides across the terrain, from small dust particles to large rocks. These sediments may include local material from the underlying substrate and materials transported from surrounding areas. Some of this is regolith, the loose deposits which cover solid rock.

  5. Sediment deposition: as the glacier advances and retreats, it deposits the sediments it has collected. This occurs as ice melts in the glacier's ablation zone. Sediments are deposited in the form of glacial moraines, which can vary in size and shape, as mentioned above.

  6. Advancing and retreating moraines: glacial moraines are divided into two main categories which are advancing moraines and retreating moraines. Advancing moraines are formed when the glacier advances and deposits sediments on its front. Retreating moraines form when the glacier retreats and leaves behind the sediments it had previously collected.

You can learn more about how glaciers form other structures with our article on what are icebergs?

What Is a Glacial Moraine? - Definition and Types - What are glacial moraines and how are they formed?

Characteristics of glacial moraines

The movement of the glacier can lead to advancing or retreating moraines. The part of the glacier can also exert great influence on the formation of the moraine. A glacial till can be formed more by the bottom part of the glacier. In these cases, the glacier pulls along the rock and sediment to collect into a moraine. These typically contain a greater mixture of rock sizes such as small particles to large chunks of rock.

Surface moraines form on the top of the glacier as the ice melts and deposits the sediments it carries. These moraines are typically smaller and composed primarily of fine material, such as sand and gravel.

Glacial moraines can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be in the form of elongated ridges known as ridge moraines, but they can also be in irregular mounds such as elephant-back moraines . These features can extend over long distances and provide valuable information about the history and behavior of glaciers in the past.

Types of glacial moraines

Now we know about the formation and morphology of moraines, we can see they develop in different ways. The result of such different development patterns is that there are many different types of moraines. These include the following::

  • Terminal moraines: also known as end moraines, terminal moraines are located at the front of the glacier, marking the point where the glacial ice stops and melts. These moraines often form a characteristic arc-shaped ridge known as a horseshoe-shaped terminal moraine.

  • Lateral moraines: lateral moraines develop on the sides of the glacier and form when ice carries and accumulates sediment as it slides along the walls of the glacial valley. They may be long ridges parallel to the flow of the glacier.

  • Medial moraines: these moraines form inside the glacier, where two lobes of ice meet. The ice pushes and accumulates sediment in the contact area, creating a medial moraine.

  • Recessional moraines: recessional moraines are the result of glacial retreat. When the ice melts and retreats, it deposits a moraine that marks its former position. These moraines can be used to trace the history of changes in glacier size.

  • Thrust-block moraines: these moraines form when ice encounters an obstacle, such as a hill or large rock. This encounter pushes sediment forward. This creates a mound-shaped thrust-block moraine at the front of the glacier.

  • Subglacial moraines: these moraines are found beneath the glacier and are formed from sediments that are carried and accumulated by moving ice. They are often difficult to study directly due to their location under the ice.

  • Supraglacial moraines: these moraines develop on the surface of the glacier as the ice melts and deposits sediment. They can range in size from small gravel ridges to larger mounds.

  • Frontal moraines: frontal moraines form at the front of a glacier, where the ice meets the surrounding environment. These moraines can be used to infer the history of advance and retreat of the glacier. This makes them important for archeology and geological study.

Learn more about how the Earth's terrain is studied with our article on the concept of geographical space.

What Is a Glacial Moraine? - Definition and Types - Types of glacial moraines

How does climate change affect glacial moraines?

Climate change can have a significant impact on glacial moraines, as well as the geographical areas and ecosystems affected by glaciers. To understand this impact, we look at how climate change is most affecting glacial moraines:

  • Glacier retreat: one of the most noticeable effects of climate change is the accelerated retreat of glaciers. Rising global temperatures cause glaciers to melt and reduce in size. As glaciers retreat, they expose moraines that were previously buried under ice. This allows scientists to study and date these moraines, providing valuable information about past glacier behavior and climate conditions.

  • Changes in moraine formation: climate change can alter the way moraines are formed. As glaciers melt more rapidly, they deposit sediment and debris at their terminus, forming terminal or end moraines. These deposits can provide insights into the rate and magnitude of glacier retreat.

  • Enhanced erosion: the warming climate can lead to increased glacial melting and ice flow. As glaciers move more rapidly, they can erode the landscape more aggressively, picking up and incorporating more debris into the ice. This can result in the formation of extensive lateral moraines and contribute to landscape modification.

  • Altered moraine distribution: changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can affect the distribution and types of moraines. Glaciers may deposit different types of moraines depending on climate conditions, such as lateral, medial or recessional moraines.

  • Impacts on glacial geology: climate change can influence the composition of moraines. As glaciers retreat, they may reveal moraines composed of materials from different time periods, reflecting past climatic variations.

Climate change has a profound influence on the formation, exposure and characteristics of glacial moraines, but we are yet to know its full extent. These landforms serve as valuable indicators of past climatic conditions and glacier behavior, making them crucial for studying and understanding the effects of climate change on glacial landscapes and Earth's history.

Discover more about how ice affects these issues with our article on the albedo effect on climate.

If you want to read similar articles to What Is a Glacial Moraine? - Definition and Types, we recommend you visit our Environment (other) category.

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