Ice cap

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Vatnajokull, Iceland Vatnajokull.jpeg
Vatnajökull, Iceland

In glaciology, an ice cap is a mass of ice that covers less than 50,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi) of land area (usually covering a highland area). Larger ice masses covering more than 50,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi) are termed ice sheets. [1] [2] [3]



Ice caps are not constrained by topographical features (i.e., they will lie over the top of mountains). By contrast, ice masses of similar size that are constrained by topographical features are known as ice fields. The dome of an ice cap is usually centred on the highest point of a massif. Ice flows away from this high point (the ice divide) towards the ice cap's periphery. [1] [3]

Ice caps have significant effects on the geomorphology of the area that they occupy. Plastic moulding, gouging and other glacial erosional features become present upon the glacier's retreat. Many lakes, such as the Great Lakes in North America, as well as numerous valleys have been formed by glacial action over hundreds of thousands of years.

On Earth, there are about 30 million cubic kilometres (7.2 million cubic miles) of total ice mass. The average temperature of an ice mass ranges between −20 and −30 °C (−4 and −22 °F). The core of an ice cap exhibits a constant temperature that ranges between −15 and −20 °C (5 and −4 °F).[ citation needed ]


High-latitude regions covered in ice, though strictly not an ice cap (since they exceed the maximum area specified in the definition above), are called polar ice caps; the usage of this designation is widespread in the mass media [4] and arguably recognized by experts. [5] Vatnajökull is an example of an ice cap in Iceland. [6]

Plateau glaciers are glaciers that overlie a generally flat highland area. Usually the ice overflows as hanging glaciers in the lower parts of the edges. [7] An example is Biscayarfonna in Svalbard. [8]

See also

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Ice age Period of long-term reduction in temperature of Earths surface and atmosphere

An ice age is a long period of reduction in the temperature of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental and polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers. Earth's climate alternates between ice ages and greenhouse periods, during which there are no glaciers on the planet. Earth is currently in the Quaternary glaciation, known in popular terminology as the Ice Age. Individual pulses of cold climate within an ice age are termed glacial periods, and intermittent warm periods within an ice age are called interglacials or interstadials.

Glaciology Scientific study of ice and natural phenomena involving ice

Glaciology is the scientific study of glaciers, or more generally ice and natural phenomena that involve ice.

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Ice shelf Large floating platform of ice caused by glacier flowing onto ocean surface

An ice shelf is a large floating platform of ice that forms where a glacier or ice sheet flows down to a coastline and onto the ocean surface. Ice shelves are only found in Antarctica, Greenland, Northern Canada, and the Russian Arctic. The boundary between the floating ice shelf and the anchor ice that feeds it is the grounding line. The thickness of ice shelves can range from about 100 m (330 ft) to 1,000 m (3,300 ft).

Ice sheet Large mass of glacial ice

In glaciology, an ice sheet, also known as a continental glacier, is a mass of glacial ice that covers surrounding terrain and is greater than 50,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi). The only current ice sheets are in Antarctica and Greenland; during the last glacial period at Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered much of North America, the Weichselian ice sheet covered northern Europe and the Patagonian Ice Sheet covered southern South America.

Last Glacial Period Period of major glaciations of the northern hemisphere (115,000–12,000 years ago)

The Last Glacial Period (LGP) occurred from the end of the Eemian to the end of the Younger Dryas, encompassing the period c. 115,000 – c. 11,700 years ago. The LGP is part of a larger sequence of glacial and interglacial periods known as the Quaternary glaciation which started around 2,588,000 years ago and is ongoing. The definition of the Quaternary as beginning 2.58 million years ago is based on the formation of the Arctic ice cap. The Antarctic ice sheet began to form earlier, at about 34 Ma, in the mid-Cenozoic. The term Late Cenozoic Ice Age is used to include this early phase.

Jökulhlaup Type of glacial outburst flood

A jökulhlaup is a type of glacial outburst flood. It is an Icelandic term that has been adopted in glaciological terminology in many languages. It originally referred to the well-known subglacial outburst floods from Vatnajökull, Iceland, which are triggered by geothermal heating and occasionally by a volcanic subglacial eruption, but it is now used to describe any large and abrupt release of water from a subglacial or proglacial lake/reservoir.

Outwash plain Plain formed from glacier sediment that was transported by meltwater.

An outwash plain, also called a sandur, sandr or sandar, is a plain formed of glaciofluvial deposits due to meltwater outwash at the terminus of a glacier. As it flows, the glacier grinds the underlying rock surface and carries the debris along. The meltwater at the snout of the glacier deposits its load of sediment over the outwash plain, with larger boulders being deposited near the terminal moraine, and smaller particles travelling further before being deposited. Sandurs are common in Iceland where geothermal activity accelerates the melting of ice flows and the deposition of sediment by meltwater.

Last Glacial Maximum Most recent glacial maximum during the Last Glacial Period that ice sheets were at their greatest extent

The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), also referred to as the Late Glacial Maximum, was the most recent time during the Last Glacial Period that ice sheets were at their greatest extent. Ice sheets covered much of North America, Northern Europe, and Asia and profoundly affected Earth's climate by causing drought, desertification, and a large drop in sea levels. According to Clark et al., growth of ice sheets commenced 33,000 years ago and maximum coverage was between 26,500 years and 19–20,000 years ago, when deglaciation commenced in the Northern Hemisphere, causing an abrupt rise in sea level. Decline of the West Antarctica ice sheet occurred between 14,000 and 15,000 years ago, consistent with evidence for another abrupt rise in the sea level about 14,500 years ago.

Ice field Large area of interconnected glaciers

An ice field is a large area of interconnected glaciers, usually found in a mountainous region. They are often found in the colder climates and higher altitudes of the world where there is sufficient precipitation for them to form. The higher peaks of the underlying mountain rock that protrude through the icefields are known as nunataks. Ice fields are larger than alpine glaciers, but smaller than ice caps and ice sheets. The topography of ice fields is determined by the shape of the surrounding landforms, while ice caps have their own forms overriding underlying shapes.

Ice stream

An ice stream is a region of fast-moving ice within an ice sheet. It is a type of glacier, a body of ice that moves under its own weight. They can move upwards of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) a year, and can be up to 50 kilometres (31 mi) in width, and hundreds of kilometers in length. They tend to be about 2 km (1.2 mi) deep at the thickest, and constitute the majority of the ice that leaves the sheet. In Antarctica, the ice streams account for approximately 90% of the sheet's mass loss per year, and approximately 50% of the mass loss in Greenland.


Svartisen is a collective term for two glaciers located in Nordland county in northern Norway. It is part of Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park, located in the Saltfjell mountain range. The glaciers are located in the municipalities of Beiarn, Meløy, Rana, and Rødøy. Svartisen consists of two separate glaciers that are separated by the 1-kilometre (0.62 mi) long Vesterdalen valley. The two glaciers are:

Glacial surges are short-lived events where a glacier can advance substantially, moving at velocities up to 100 times faster than normal. Surging glaciers cluster around a few areas. High concentrations of surging glaciers occur in the Karakoram, Pamir Mountains, Svalbard, the Canadian Arctic islands, Alaska and Iceland, although overall it is estimated that only one percent of all the world's glaciers ever surge. In some glaciers, surges can occur in fairly regular cycles, with 15 to 100 or more surge events per year. In other glaciers, surging remains unpredictable. In some glaciers, however, the period of stagnation and build-up between two surges typically lasts 10 to 200 years and is called the quiescent phase. During this period the velocities of the glacier are significantly lower, and the glaciers can retreat substantially.

Retreat of glaciers since 1850 Shortening of glaciers by melting

The retreat of glaciers since 1850 affects the availability of fresh water for irrigation and domestic use, mountain recreation, animals and plants that depend on glacier-melt, and, in the longer term, the level of the oceans. Studied by glaciologists, the temporal coincidence of glacier retreat with the measured increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases is often cited as an evidentiary underpinning of global warming. Mid-latitude mountain ranges such as the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, Cascades, and the southern Andes, as well as isolated tropical summits such as Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, are showing some of the largest proportionate glacial losses.

Glacier morphology

Glacier morphology, or the form a glacier takes, is influenced by temperature, precipitation, topography, and other factors. The goal of glacial morphology is to gain a better understanding of glaciated landscapes, and the way they are shaped. Types of glaciers can range from massive ice sheets, such as the Greenland ice sheet, to small cirque glaciers found perched on mountain tops. Glaciers can be grouped into two main categories:

Ice-sheet dynamics

Ice sheet dynamics describe the motion within large bodies of ice, such those currently on Greenland and Antarctica. Ice motion is dominated by the movement of glaciers, whose gravity-driven activity is controlled by two main variable factors: the temperature and the strength of their bases. A number of processes alter these two factors, resulting in cyclic surges of activity interspersed with longer periods of inactivity, on both hourly and centennial time scales. Ice-sheet dynamics are of interest in modelling future sea level rise.

Vatnajökull National Park

Vatnajökull National Park is one of three national parks in Iceland. It encompasses all of Vatnajökull glacier and extensive surrounding areas. These include the national parks previously existing at Skaftafell in the southwest and Jökulsárgljúfur in the north.


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  2. Bennett, Matthew; Glasser, Neil (1996). Glacial Geology: Ice Sheets and Landforms. Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons Ltd. ISBN   0-471-96345-3.
  3. 1 2 Greve, R.; Blatter, H. (2009). Dynamics of Ice Sheets and Glaciers. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-03415-2. ISBN   978-3-642-03414-5.
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  7. Whalley, Brian. "Plateau Glaciers and their significance". Vignettes: Key Concepts in Geomorphology. Retrieved 27 March 2020 via Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College.
  8. "Biscayarfonna (Svalbard)". Norwegian Polar Institute . Retrieved 11 October 2019.