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Glacial Cirques

Dylan Brazier
May 2nd, 2018
Introduction
Cirques, they can be dramatic and beautiful on their own but many of them are masked
by the glaciers that occupy their space. Some would say that even though they are covered, the
glaciers add to the beauty of the scene. The two landforms coexist in a symbiotic relationship,
the cirque and the glacier both benefit from each other. Many a time I have found myself in the
Indian Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park hiking to alpine lakes with amazing
vistas of craggy peaks towering 270 degrees around. I’ve always wondered how and what these
features were, the steep headwalls that adventurous skiers test their abilities on in the winter and
the lakes that form in the cereal bowl-like bottom. While both glaciers and cirques can form
without one another, its much more common to see the two working in concert.
Morphology
What exactly is a cirque? Cirques are bowl shaped landforms with steep headwalls and
sidewalls typically formed from glacial erosion. The headwall end of the cirque is the highest
wall within the valley and at the other end of the cirque is the threshold or the outlet for the
residing glacier to flow towards. Length, breadth, area, volume, and amplitude represent the
different size descriptors of cirques; these descriptors allow us to derive morphological
information regarding the cirque and the types of glaciers that have formed within. The
positioning of a cirque is critical to its growth, they typically form where they are least exposed
to the sun and regional winds. These protected areas in the mountains are essential for snow
accumulation and glacial propagation. Cirques typically begin forming with larger widths
compared to their length, but as time progresses length and closure depth increase faster than
width giving the cirque a shape resembling an elongated circle. As the length continues to grow
downslope it also grows upslope causing the headwall to retreat faster than the rate at which the
cirque deepens. (Richardson & Holmlund, 1996) state that there is contention within the geologic
community between length increasing faster than widening and both values increasing at the
same rate. While glacial erosion is the driving force in cirque formation and evolution other
factors such as regional fracturing, joints, bedrock strength, eolian weathering and even types of
bedding are known to have an effect.
Formation begins with snow accumulation on the top of a mountain somewhat shaded
from the sun and winds. The snow continues to accumulate and eventually forms into ice, this ice
begins wedging itself into all the little cracks and opens present in the once exposed
mountainside. Frost cracking forces chunks of rock off the mountainside and with the melting
and refreezing of the ice these rocks are deposited on the bottom of the forming glacier. The
ELA ultimately determines the size of the glacier formed and this is based off the regional
climate. The equilibrium line altitude separates the accumulation zone and the ablation zone
(figure 1); the accumulation zone is the area on the glacier where snow accumulates more than it

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is removed, and the ablation zone is where snow is removed more than it is accumulated.
Regional climate has a big impact on the location of the ELA; if the region is cold for longer
periods of time and generally shaded from the sun, the ELA will move further downslope but if
the region is warmer and less protected from the sun, the ELA will move further upslope. As the
accumulation continues, the glacier grows and begins to flow downslope with the headwall rocks
on the bottom eroding the surface of the mountain. All the processes continue over many
hundreds of thousands of years with glaciers forming, eroding, melting and reforming. The
headwall has become a steep rock face from the frost cracking then subsequent abrasion shortly
after and the base of the cirque has been deepened from the movement of the eroded sediment
from the headwall to the bottom of the glacier. Much of this material is deposited at the outlet of
the cirque forming a moraine from the glacial till and this moraine acts as a dam when the glacier
eventually melts. A tarn or lake is formed from the melt which ultimately refreezes once climatic
conditions are favorable for glaciation.

Figure 1. Mass balance of a glacial cirque that continues down valley possibly attaching to another larger glacier.

Cirques have needs to form properly such as orientation, climate and even tectonics.
While cirques can be found in continental mountain regions they can also be found in maritime
glaciated ranges. When no active tectonics can be determined, the identification of summits that
exist above glaciation thresholds are integral to calculating ice cover duration and glacial
formation. (Brook et al., 2006) states that in the presence of active tectonics, the uplift of a
summit above the glaciation threshold leading to a first glaciation opportunity in the region.
Various measurements of oxygen-18 allow for the approximation of the amount of time needed
for a glacier to form and thereby erode sediment to form the now existing cirque. Thermal
regime of the glaciers also play an important role in cirque formation; there are warm-based,
cold-based and polythermal glaciers that can form but are ultimately formed due to climate.
Warm-based glaciers are categorized as glaciers that are at or above freezing point allowing them
to move fluidly and perform the glacial erosion that we typically associate with glaciers. Cold-

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based glaciers are below freezing point and are effectively frozen to the bedrock allowing for no
movement or erosion. Polythermal glaciers are a mixture of the two types with warm-based
sections on the top where the glacier is more exposed to the sun and winds, and the cold-based
sections near the bottom where they are shaded by the high sidewalls of the forming cirque
(Richardson & Holmlund, 1996).
Climate also plays a key role in formation primarily based upon regional humidity. In
continental polar regions cirques can form but it is relatively difficult due to the temperature of
the soil, region, and air. The other difficulty cirques must overcome is the lack of humidity from
local winds coming from pressure systems of very low humidity causing the region to be very
dry and are dominated by cold-based glaciers. Maritime glaciated ranges however experience
higher rates of temperature fluctuation based upon the humidity from nearby bodies of water.
These temperature fluctuations allow for the region to be dominated mainly by warm-based but
also polythermal and even cold-based glaciers. Cirque production in these regions is very high
and can even allow for the formation of several cirques near one another (figure 2). Orientation
shows how regional tectonics, glaciation and climate all work together to form cirques. The
tectonics gives an area above the glaciation threshold for snow to begin accumulating, based on
the regional climate and direction of wind flow the snow accumulates on a specific area of the
mountain, further climatic effects determine the amount of snow accumulation and the eventual
thermal regime of the forming glacier. Glacial cirques form in very specific conditions in which
the headwall protects the valley and subsequent growing glacier from the sun. Through
utilization of peaks and passes, winds can flow over the top and deposit large drifts of snow in
the cirques; as the cirque grows so does the glacier (Graf, 1976). This produces a positive
feedback loop; negative feedback loops can also have a big effect on glacial cirques. Climatic
changes regionally can affect the growth and evolution of glaciers; typically occurring during
interglacial periods, glaciers can change drastically over a period of decades and even years. One
really interesting thing that I learned about cirques is how they formed the Matterhorn; four
distinct glaciers broke off from the Matterhorn glacier and eroded the four sides of the
mountainside producing this dramatic horn that stands out from the rest of the landscape.

Figure 2. The formation of many cirques in close proximity

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Summary
Snow accumulates areas on a mountainside, as the amount of snow increases so does the
pressure from the snow. The pressure created pushes the snow downslope and allows for it to
pick up small sediment. The sediment abrades the subglacial surface and contributes to the
growing amount of sediment within the growing glacier. Snow and ice melt penetrates the
bedrock and refreezes allowing for frost cracking and weathering of the headwall. This process
continues for some time until the mound of snow and ice eventually forms a glacier. A large
crevasse forms separating the main body of the glacier from the headwall allowing for eroded
sediment to fall to the bottom of the glacier and become part of the flow. As the bedrock abrades,
the sediment is circulated throughout the glacier and pushed to the front and sides. Sidewalls are
abraded causing widening and steepening pushing the glacier towards the threshold or outlet of
the valley. The glacier eventually stops growing and the sediment at the front is then deposited as
a sill or moraine. Through processes of negative feedback, the glacier melts and forms and alpine
lake or tarn which typically remains until it refreezes. Once the lake has refrozen, snow can
accumulate on top and glacier will grow bigger than before due to the growth of the cirque and
this process will repeat itself over several hundreds of thousands of years until a prominent
landform has been created.

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References
Brook, M.S., Kirkbride, M.P., and Brock, B.W. (2006): Cirque development in a steadily
uplifting range: rates of erosion and long-term morphometric change in alpine cirques in the Ben
Ohau Range, New Zealand. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 31: 1167-1175.

Richardson, C., Holmlund, P. (1996): Glacial cirque formation in Northern Scandinavia. Annals
of Glaciology 22: 102-106

Graf, W.L. (1976): Cirques as glacier locations. Artic and Alpine Reasearch, Vol. 8, No. 1, 79-90

Figures
1. http://physgeog.blogspot.com.br/2013_01_01_archive.html?_escaped_fragment_#!
2. https://www2.usgs.gov/images/topical/glaciers/dsc00056.jpg