Glacial landscape

James S. Aber

Table of Contents
Lobate glaciation pattern Continental glacial zones
Glacial landscapes on Mars Related sites

Lobate pattern of glaciation

Chamberlin (1882) described the terminal (Late Wisconsin) moraine thusly: It constitutes a broad, irregular range of confusedly heaped drift rather than a simple continuous ridge or group of definite parallel ridges ... Genetically considered, it embraces two or more such ranges, which sometimes coalesce into a common massive belt, and sometimes separate ... (p. 310).

He continued: The superficial aspect of the formation is that of an irregular, intricate series of drift ridges and hills of rapidly, but often very graceful, undulating contour, consisting of rounded domes, conical peaks, winding and occasionally geniculated ridges, short, sharp spurs, mounds, knolls, and hummocks, promiscuously arranged, accompanied by corresponding depressions, that are sometimes even more striking in character.

On moraine loops: It is disposed in a series of great loops which give to the whole a peculiar arcuate expression. A remarkable peculiarity is the extraordinary fact that the lateral portions of these great loops do not simply join, forming re-entrant angles, but coalesce and are prolonged sometimes a hundred miles (160 km) or more between the lobate areas embraced by the loops, forming a peculiar morainic type, to which the term intermediate or interlobate moraines will be applied. (p. 313) Chamberlin recognized twelve such great loops (lobes) encompassing broad valleys in the northern United States--see Table 8-1.

Table 8-1. Twelve large ice lobes of the southern glacial margin in the United States, as originally mapped by Chamberlin (1882).
Eastern United States Central United States
Champlain-Hudson lobe, N.Y. Lake Michigan lobe, IL/WI.
Finger Lakes lobe, N.Y. Green Bay lobe, Wisconsin.
Grand River lobe, Ohio. Chippewa lobe, N. Wisconsin.
Scioto lobe, Ohio. Superior lobe, MN/Wisconsin.
Maumee lobe, Ohio/Indiana. Des Moines lobe, MN/Iowa.
Saginaw lobe, Michigan. James valley lobe, N/S Dakotas.

On-campus ESU students, see geologic maps of the northern Great Plains and Great Lakes regions on display in Science Hall (maps #24 & #25, next to room 128). These maps depict lobate patterns of glaciation.

Hudson River, New York: NASA space-shuttle photo, STS58-81-038, 70 mm format. Low-oblique view toward northwest over Long Island, New York City, Hudson River, and Catskill Mts. Reddish-brown color shows autumn foliage of forest in Catskills, October 1993. During the late Wisconsin glaciation, an ice lobe extended southward along the Hudson valley and reached a maximum position marked by end moraines on Long Island and Staten Island. NASA Johnson Space Center, Imagery Services.
Finger Lakes, New York: NASA space-shuttle photo, STS51B-33-028, 70 mm format, 4/85. Near-vertical view of Lake Ontario and New York Finger Lakes. Finger Lakes occupy deep, ice-carved valleys that diverge southward from the Ontario basin. South of the Finger Lakes, a network of river valleys marks the path of ice-marginal melt-water drainage related to the Ontario ice lobe. NASA Johnson Space Center, Imagery Services.
Lake Michigan and Green Bay, WI/MI: NASA space-shuttle photo, STS28-153-22, 5-inch format, 8/89. High-oblique view toward southwest over Lake Michigan and Green Bay (right of lake). Large ice lobes followed both basins toward the south; ice flow was split by bedrock high that forms Green Bay peninsula and islands to the north. NASA Johnson Space Center, Imagery Services.
Prairie Coteau, MN/SD: NASA space-shuttle photo, STS36-152-110, 5-inch format, 3/90. Near-vertical view of Coteau des Prairies, eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota. Lakes are frozen, but ground is snow free in this late winter scene. The prominent light-colored zone along the eastern edge is the Bemis Moraine, which formed along the western side of the Des Moines lobe during late Wisconsin glaciation. Small elongated lakes in the moraine occupy tunnel valleys that were eroded by melt water flowing out from beneath the ice lobe. NASA Johnson Space Center, Imagery Services.

Chamberlin undertook detailed mapping and analysis of the glacial features associated with the Green Bay lobe. From this he developed three fundamental laws of glacier dynamics in ice lobes (Chamberlin 1886).

  1. A broad depression, reaching well backward along the line of glacial movement, was effective in producing prolongations of the ice (p. 183). Horberg and Anderson (1956) reached a similar conclusion, noting that bedrock topography was most important for controlling the form of ice lobes. Broad, bedrock troughs of the Great Lakes are prime examples of this phenomenon--a major ice lobe was active in each.

    Great Lakes, United States and Canada: NASA space-shuttle photograph, STS064-54-022, 9/94, 5-inch format. High-oblique view toward southwest with sunglint from lake surfaces; Lake Ontario to left, Lake Michigan to far right. Great Lakes basins were eroded by large ice lobes that spread southward from the Laurentide Ice Sheet. NASA Johnson Space Center, Imagery Services.

  2. In glacial flow as applied to the marginal portions of the ice ... the movement was essentially at right angles to the border (p. 184). Thus, ice movement ascended from basins toward highlands; a radial or divergent flow pattern developed in the ice lobes.

  3. Ice overriding in a deep current covering all topographic features will be less affected by these topographic features, which produce deflections only in the basal ice flow.

    Memorial plaque to T.C. Chamberlin on a large erratic boulder, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Chamberlin's service to Wisconsin and geology are commemorated on this monument. Photo © by J.S. Aber.

The various glacial landforms are usually arranged in systematic patterns relative to ice lobes. End moraines, ice-pushed hills, and kames define arcs or crescents that outline the margins of ice lobes. Landforms associated with melt-water erosion or deposition in streams, lakes, or seas are located beyond the edges of ice lobes. Subglacial landforms, such as drumlins, eskers, tunnel valleys, and ground moraine, are found within the areas occupied by ice lobes. The kinds of landforms created by an ice-lobe advance and retreat depend on many factors: rate of advance, substratum lithology, basal temperature, etc.

The shape, thickness, and rate of movement of a glacier lobe are controlled by many variables--substratum topography, ice supply from interior of ice sheet, basal melt-water conditions, nature of substratum sediment, permafrost, etc. Two general forms of ice lobes were developed along the southern margin of the Laurentide ice sheet (Clark 1992).

Ice lobes are the marginal expressions of ice streams--narrow zones of high-velocity flow within the ice sheet. In general, ice streams are associated with topographic depressions or areas of soft-sediment substratum, wherein subglacial meltwater or substratum deformation aided rapid ice movement. However, Stokes and Clark (2003) have demonstrated paleoice streams also in regions with hard bedrock and without topographic control. Apparently ice streams may function as a "relief valve" to ice sheet mass balance and could be initiated by a proglacial lake that destabilized (floated) the ice margin. Several large paleoice streams have been identified in the late Pleistocene Laurentide ice sheet on the basis of elongated drumlins and large glacial lineations.

Continental glacial landscape zones

The distribution of glacial erosion, deformation, and deposition for large ice sheets is not random or haphazard, but follows certain broad patterns (Dyke and Prest 1987; Aber 1992, Aber and Ber 2007). Three zones of glacial landscape modification may be recognized for continental ice sheets.

  1. Outer zone: Thick and nearly continuous glacial sediment of various kinds, large end moraines, much ice-push deformation of soft substratum. Plains and lowlands located beyond shield/mountain areas and underlain by sedimentary bedrock; may also be found in interior positions. Lobate style of glaciation is the rule with multiple tills and interglacial deposits commonly preserved.

    Thick sequence of glacial strata exposed in Golden Valley bluffs, near Medicine Hat, Alberta. The bluffs reveal >80 m of glacial sediments that form a blanket, which buries the preglacial landscape of southern Alberta. Photos © by J.S. Aber.
    Streeter Moraine in Logan County, southeastern North Dakota. This moraine is located on the Missouri Coteau; it was formed along the western margin of the James ice lobe. The moraine contains many large ice-shoved hills, like the example seen on the horizon.
    Glacial sequence exposed in quarry near Freienwalde, northeastern Germany. The light-colored mass at top is a bedrock raft (megablock) of Oligocene glimmersand (micaeous sandstone) that was thrust over the brown-colored glacial sediment underneath.
    Cape Cod, Massachusetts: NASA space-shuttle photograph, STS071-708-040, 07/06/95, 70 mm format. Low-oblique view toward northwest. Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and other offshore islands consist of moraines and ice-shoved hills built along the margins of ice lobes during the late Wisconsin glaciation, around 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. NASA Johnson Space Center, Imagery Services.

  2. Intermediate zone: Thin and discontinuous glacial sediment with large areas of exposed basement rocks. Located in shield/mountain areas of crystalline bedrock. Long eskers and glacial lineaments, but few end moraines and little ice-push deformation. Deposits date mainly from final phases of the last glaciation.

    View over crystalline shield terrain, Stockholm, eastern Sweden. The hill top is exposed bedrock without any sediment or soil cover. Lower on the hill sides, thin moraine cover is present--see next photo. This bedrock landscape is typical of the intermediate zone of glaciation.
    Closeup view of thin moraine cover on lower portion of bedrock hill. The sediment is only one boulder-layer in thickness.

  3. Inner zone: Moderately thick and continuous glacial sediment with ribbed and Rogen moraine, drumlins, and common ice-push deformation (Aber and Lundqvist 1988). Central shield/mountain areas and/or sedimentary substratum. Crust was depressed 100s of m; multiple tills and deposits predating last glaciation are commonly preserved.

    Andersön, a small drumlin (background) within Storsjön lake, central Sweden. Glacial sediment forms a near-continuous cover in foreground. The drumlin and sediment cover are typical of the inner zone of glaciation--see next photo.
    Closeup view of exposure on side of Andersön drumlin. Fine sand/silt is folded around a core of coarse gravel. Overriding ice molded the ice-pushed hill into a small drumlin. Ice movement from right to left; scale pole is 2 m long.

It is clear from this zonal pattern that evidence for past glaciation would most likely be preserved in the outer zone, especially on continental shelves and in adjacent marine basins, where deposits 100s of m thick could accumulate. Evidence for ancient glaciation would, conversely, consist of a vast erosional surface over much of the interior land area.

View over Egersund, southwestern Norway. The crystalline bedrock was stripped of soft sediment cover during repeated ice-sheet glaciations. The erosion surface is the only evidence for former glaciation, except for scattered pockets of sediment that date mainly from final phases of the last glaciation.

Glacially scoured tundra landscape of
Magerøya, northernmost Norway.

The Antarctic shelf shows the unusual effects of repeated glaciations. Most continental shelves are <200 m deep near land and become gradually deeper (1 km) toward the shelf margin. The Antarctic shelf is the opposite. The shelf is relatively deep (0.8-1.3 km) near shore, but becomes shallower toward the margin, where water depth is only 200-400 m (ten Brink and Schneider 1995). Greater depth of the inner shelf results from glacial erosion and/or non-deposition; whereas the outer shelf has built up a very thick sequence of glacially related deposits. The Greenland continental shelf exhibits similar development, in which outer portions have end moraines preserved in quite shallow water, and deep channels are cut across inner portions.

These landscape zones are related in general to the availability of erodible or deformable substrata, namely thick sediments or sedimentary bedrock. The three glacial landscape zones are the results of multiple glaciations and represent long-term, cumulative modifications of continental substratum by ice sheets. Complex patterns of ice movement exist, particularly in the inner and intermediate zones of glaciation, due to changing ice centers and flow lines. Thus, the landforms of older glacial movements may be overprinted, much modified, or completely obliterated by later ice flows. The results are cross-cutting geomorphic patterns over regions of former glaciation.

The three glacial landscape zones are apparently also related to thermal regimes developed at the base of the ice sheets, particularly during deglaciation. The glacial landscape zones in North America and northern Europe are arranged in symmetrical patterns with respect to the Atlantic Ocean. The general correspondence in glacial landscapes is most remarkable considering the geographic and climatic differences between the two continents. Repeated ice-sheet glaciations have imposed a common geomorphic pattern, in spite of these differences.

Glacial landscape patterns on Mars

Recent claims of evidence for past life on Mars have reignited popular and scientific fasination with the red planet, even though modern Mars is clearly unsuitable for life as we know it on the planet's surface. Mars has a CO2-rich atmosphere, but the atmosphere is so thin (0.006 bar) that it has little greenhouse effect. Mars has a water-rich crust, in which a huge volume of water is locked in permafrost. Frozen CO2 (dry ice) and water ice form the seasonal polar ice caps. Mars was once warmer and may have had as much as 1-5 bars CO2 pressure in its atmosphere. Landforms of the martian surface provide abundant evidence for the past existence of liquid water, oceans, sea ice, and even glaciers (Kargel and Strom 1996).

The infamous canals of Mars are really giant valleys eroded by immense water floods. These floods were triggered when episodic volcanism melted large volumes of permafrost in the Tharsis Bulge region. The floods scoured channel networks leading to a large basin in the northern hemisphere, in which Oceanus Borealis was formed. Oceanus Borealis covered up to 40 million km² with an average water depth of about 1700 m (1 mile). Such oceans may have formed repeatedly following major volcanic outbursts.

During each oceanic phase, a mild climate with moderate greenhouse effect came into being. Water vapor was circulated in the atmosphere around the planet. Snowfall and glacier formation occurred in the southern hemisphere resulting in a vast Austral Ice Sheet. The array of glacial landforms present on Mars bears a striking similarity to glacial features of the Earth. The mild climatic episodes on Mars evidently were short-lived, however, because volcanism was not continuous. The climatic history of Mars apparently consisted of long, cold intervals of permafrost punctuated by short, mild, oceanic/glacial episodes. The final glacial epoch took place late in martian history, not less than about 100,000 years nor greater than 20 million years ago (Kargel and Strom 1992).

The ultimate failure of Mars' episodic greenhouse climate can be attributed to the planet's small size. The planet's interior cooled early in its history, and volcanic emission of CO2 became intermittent. Weak gravity allowed much of the atmosphere to escape, so that a permanent greenhouse effect and mild climate could not become established.

This volcanic-climatic scenario along with the chance of martian life remain highly controversial subjects among planetary scientists and the public. The possibility of past life on Mars has major theological as well as scientific implications. A series of NASA missions are designed to collect data from martian atmospheric and surficial environments. These unmanned missions may culminate ultimately in manned expeditions by the mid-21st century. Only then could we firmly establish the evidence for past glaciation and the possibility of ancient life on Mars.

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All images and text © J.S. Aber.