The Southern Patagonian Icefield of Argentina and Chile is the southern remnant of the Patagonia Ice Sheet that covered the southern Andes Mountains during the last ice age. This detailed astronaut photograph illustrates the terminus of one of the icefield’s many spectacular glaciers—Upsala Glacier, located on the eastern side of the icefield. Upsala is the third largest glacier in the icefield, and like most other glaciers in the region, it has experienced significant retreat over the past century.
This image was taken during spring in the Southern Hemisphere, and icebergs were calving from the glacier terminus into the waters of Lago Argentino (Lake Argentina, image right). Two icebergs are especially interesting because they retain fragments of the moraine (rock debris) that forms a dark line along the upper surface of the glacier. The inclusion of the moraine illustrates how land-based rocks and sediment may wind up in ocean sediments far from shore.
Moraines are formed from rock and soil debris that accumulate along the front and sides of a flowing glacier. The glacier is like a bulldozer that pushes soil and rock in front of it, leaving debris on either side. When two glaciers merge (image center), moraines along their edges can join to form a medial moraine that is drawn out along the upper surface of the new glacier.
The moraine can be carried intact to the terminus and included in icebergs that then float away, dropping the coarse debris as the iceberg melts. While the icebergs produced by Upsala Glacier do not reach an ocean, many current glaciers do. The existence of ancient glaciers and ice sheets is recorded by layers or pockets of coarse, land-derived sediments within finer-grained sea floor sediments that are located far from any current (or former) coastline.
Astronaut photograph ISS021-E-15243 was acquired on October 25, 2009, with a Nikon D2Xs digital camera fitted with a 400 mm lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 21 crew. The image in this article has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast. Lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by William L. Stefanov, NASA-JSC.
Although they move slowly, glaciers do move, and this movement alters the ice as it passes over land. Likewise, a moving glacier can carry with it evidence of geologic events it has witnessed. The Bear Glacier in the Kenai Peninsula along the Gulf of Alaska bears multiple clues about its past.
The Southern Patagonian Icefield of Chile and Argentina hosts several spectacular glaciers—including Grey Glacier located in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. This glacier, which in 1996 had a measured total area of 270 square kilometers and a length of 28 kilometers (104 square miles in area, 17 miles long), begins in the Patagonian Andes Mountains to the west and terminates in three distinct lobes into Grey Lake (upper image).