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Glacial erosion: status and outlook

  • R. B. Alley (a1), K. M. Cuffey (a2) and L. K. Zoet (a3)


Glacier-erosion rates range across orders of magnitude, and much of this variation cannot be attributed to basal sliding rates. Subglacial till acts as lubricating ‘fault gouge’ or ‘sawdust’, and must be removed for rapid subglacial bedrock erosion. Such erosion occurs especially where and when moulin-fed streams access the bed and are unconstrained by supercooling or other processes. Streams also may directly erode bedrock, likely with strong time-evolution. Erosion is primarily by quarrying, aided by strong fluctuations in the water system driven by variable surface melt and by subglacial earthquakes. Debris-bed friction significantly affects abrasion, quarrying and general glacier flow. Frost heave drives cirque headwall erosion as winter cold air enters bergschrunds, creating temperature gradients to drive water flow along premelted films to growing ice lenses that fracture rock, and the glacier removes the resulting blocks. Recent subglacial bedrock erosion and sediment flux are in many cases much higher than long-term averages. Over glacial cycles, evolution of glacial-valley form feeds back strongly on erosion and deposition. Most of this is poorly quantified, with parts open to argument. Glacial erosion and interactions are important to tectonic and volcanic processes as well as climate and biogeochemical fluxes, motivating vigorous research.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the same Creative Commons licence is included and the original work is properly cited. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use.

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Author for correspondence: R. B. Alley, E-mail:


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Glacial erosion: status and outlook

  • R. B. Alley (a1), K. M. Cuffey (a2) and L. K. Zoet (a3)


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