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Earth Matters

Glacier-calving in Lakes Versus the Sea

August 22nd, 2014 by Adam Voiland

Tidewater glaciers—glaciers that flow from inland mountains all the way into the sea—are perhaps best known for birthing new icebergs in spectacular fashion. As members of James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey team captured in this clip (above) of Ilulissat Glacier in western Greenland, calving events can feature huge chunks of ice tumbling into roiling waters and be accompanied by loud booming and splashing sounds.

However, tidewater glaciers aren’t the only type of glacier that calve. The ends of lacustrine, or lake, glaciers also break off periodically. Such glaciers gouge depressions in the ground, and those holes fill with melt water to become proglacial lakes. While many of these lakes are small and ephemeral, some are large enough to serve as the backdrop for sizable calving events.

University of Alaska glaciologist Martin Truffer captured this sequence of images (below), which show a calving event at Yakutat Glacier in southeastern Alaska on July 16, 2009. “What we see in the video is a huge iceberg breaking off and rotating. I don’t have a good estimate of the size, but the part of the front that broke of is at least one kilometer long. I think it is quite unusual to see such large ice bergs overturning in lake-calving glaciers. Mostly, they just break off and quietly drift away,” Truffer noted in an email.

There are some key differences between calving events at tidewater and lacustrine glaciers. Tidewater glaciers tend to have much steeper calving fronts than their freshwater cousins. Also, lake water is generally much cooler than seawater, and there is less water circulation in lakes due to the absence of tides. As a result, tidewater glaciers calve much more frequently and are much less likely to have floating tongues of ice, which are common on lake-calving glaciers.

To learn more about Yakutat Glacier, read the Image of the Day we published on August 20, 2014. To learn more about the differences between lake-calving and tidewater glaciers, read this study published in the Journal of Glaciology.  And to see more photographs of Yakutat Glacier, check out Martin Truffer’s field dispatches on his Glacier Adventures blog. I’ve included one of my favorites—an aerial shot taken on September 26, 2011, after Yakut retreated enough that its single calving face had divided into two separate branches. The photograph was taken by William Dryer, one of Truffer’s colleagues.