Related research on ‘rock glaciers’

August 13, 2009 10:30 pm

Zach Seligman, a graduate student at the University of Montana, has focused his research on the lesser-known “rock glaciers.”

A rock glacier forms when rocks fall onto a glacier’s surface, become embedded and eventually constitute a majority of the glacier. The rock seems to have an “insulating” effect and tends to preserve the ice underneath.

During his study, Seligman identified 660 rock glaciers or related complexes in the Beartooths, but he estimates there are more than 1,000, far more than the few dozen “traditional” glaciers found there. “They’re not very well understood,” Seligman said. “But as glaciers recede, rock glaciers could be an important source of water under the climate change scenario.”

Rock glaciers, by their very existence, indicate a declining trend in precipitation. And they differ from “traditional” ice glaciers in their rate of movement. A rock glacier may move less than one centimeter per year, Seligman said, so photo records are less effective in tracking them. Instead, the rock glaciers provide clues about the changing elevation of the permafrost level.

“You can infer it was so much colder at a certain area so many years ago,” he said.

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