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Talus at the bottom of Mount Yamnuska, Alberta, Canada. Yamnuska bottom cliff.jpg
Talus at the bottom of Mount Yamnuska, Alberta, Canada.

Scree is a collection of broken rock fragments at the base of crags, mountain cliffs, volcanoes or valley shoulders that has accumulated through periodic rockfall from adjacent cliff faces. Landforms associated with these materials are often called talus deposits or stony accumulations. Talus deposits typically have a concave upwards form, where the maximum inclination corresponds to the angle of repose of the mean debris particle size. Scree is a subcategory of the broader debris class of colluvium: any collection of loose, unconsolidated sediments at the base of hillslopes. The exact definition of scree in the primary literature is somewhat relaxed, and it often overlaps with both talus and colluvium. [1] Colluvium refers to sediments produced by nearly any means and transported downslope by gravity; scree refers to larger blocks and fragments of rock transported downslope.


The term scree comes from the Old Norse term for landslide, skriða, [2] while the term talus is a French word meaning a slope or embankment. [3] [4]

In high-altitude arctic and subarctic regions, scree slopes and talus deposits are typically adjacent to hills and river valleys. These steep slopes usually originate from late-Pleistocene periglacial processes. [5] Notable scree sites in North America include the Ice Caves at White Rocks National Recreation Area in southern Vermont and Ice Mountain in eastern West Virginia [6] in the Appalachian Mountains. Screes are most abundant in the PyreneesAlps, Variscan, Apennine, Orocantabrian, and Carpathian Mountains, Iberian peninsula, and Northern Europe. [7]


Talus cones on north shore of Isfjord, Svalbard, Norway. TalusConesIsfjorden.jpg
Talus cones on north shore of Isfjord, Svalbard, Norway.

The formation of scree and talus deposits is the result of physical and chemical weathering acting on a rock face, and erosive processes transporting the material downslope.

There are five main stages of scree slope evolution: (1) accumulation, (2) consolidation, (3) weathering, (4) encroaching vegetation, and finally, (5) slope degradation.

Scree slopes form as a result of accumulated loose, coarse-grained material. Within the scree slope itself, however, there is generally good sorting of sediment by size: larger particles accumulate more rapidly at the bottom of the slope. [8] Cementation occurs as fine-grained material fills in gaps between debris. The speed of consolidation depends on the composition of the slope; clayey components will bind debris together faster than sandy ones. Should weathering outpace the supply of sediment, plants may take root. Plant roots diminish cohesive forces between the coarse and fine components, degrading the slope. [9] The predominant processes that degrade a rock slope depend largely on the regional climate (see below), but also on the thermal and topographic stresses governing the parent rock material. Example process domains include:

Physical weathering processes

Scree formation is commonly attributed to the formation of ice within mountain rock slopes. The presence of joints, fractures, and other heterogeneities in the rock wall can allow precipitation, groundwater, and surface runoff to flow through the rock. If the temperature drops below the freezing point of the fluid contained within the rock, during particularly cold evenings, for example, this water can freeze. Since water expands by 9% when it freezes, it can generate large forces that either create new cracks or wedge blocks into an unstable position. Special boundary conditions (rapid freezing and water confinement) may be required for this to happen. [10] Freeze-thaw scree production is thought to be most common during the spring and fall, when the daily temperatures fluctuate around the freezing point of water, and snow melt produces ample free water.

The efficiency of freeze-thaw processes in scree production is a subject of ongoing debate. Many researchers believe that ice formation in large open fracture systems cannot generate high enough pressures to force the fracturing apart of parent rocks, and instead suggest that the water and ice simply flow out of the fractures as pressure builds. [11] Many argue that frost heaving, like that known to act in soil in permafrost areas, may play an important role in cliff degradation in cold places. [12] [13]

Eventually, a rock slope may be completely covered by its own scree, so that production of new material ceases. The slope is then said to be "mantled" with debris. However, since these deposits are still unconsolidated, there is still a possibility of the deposit slopes themselves failing. If the talus deposit pile shifts and the particles exceed the angle of repose, the scree itself may slide and fail.

Chemical weathering processes

Phenomena such as acid rain may also contribute to the chemical degradation of rocks and produce more loose sediments.

Biotic weathering processes

Biotic processes often intersect with both physical and chemical weathering regimes, as the organisms that interact with rocks can mechanically or chemically alter them.

Lichen frequently grow on the surface of, or within, rocks. Particularly during the initial colonization process, the lichen often inserts its hyphae into small fractures or mineral cleavage planes that exist in the host rock. [14] As the lichen grows, the hyphae expand and force the fractures to widen. This increases the potential of fragmentation, possibly leading to rockfalls. During the growth of the lichen thallus, small fragments of the host rock can be incorporated into the biological structure and weaken the rock.

Freeze-thaw action of the entire lichen body due to microclimatic changes in moisture content can alternately cause thermal contraction and expansion, [14] which also stresses the host rock. Lichen also produce a number of organic acids as metabolic byproducts. [14] These often react with the host rock, dissolving minerals, and breaking down the substrate into unconsolidated sediments.

Interactions with surrounding landscape

Scree often collects at the base of glaciers, concealing them from their environment. For example, Lech dl Dragon, in the Sella group of the Dolomites, is derived from the melting waters of a glacier and is hidden under a thick layer of scree. Debris cover on a glacier affects the energy balance and, therefore, the melting process. [15] [16] Whether the glacier ice begins melting more rapidly or more slowly is determined by the thickness of the layer of scree on its surface.

The amount of energy reaching the surface of the ice below the debris can be estimated via the one-dimensional, homogeneous material assumption of Fourier's Law: [16]


where k is the thermal conductivity of the debris material, Ts is the ambient temperature above the debris surface, Ti is the temperature at the lower surface of the debris, and d is the thickness of the debris layer.

Scree-covered glacier, Lech dl Dragon, Italy Lech dl Dragon bis.JPG
Scree-covered glacier, Lech dl Dragon, Italy

Debris with a low thermal conductivity value, or a high thermal resistivity, will not efficiently transfer energy through to the glacier, meaning the amount of heat energy reaching the ice surface is substantially lessened. This can act to insulate the glacier from incoming radiation.

The albedo, or the ability of a material to reflect incoming radiation energy, is also an important quality to consider. Generally, the debris will have a lower albedo than the glacier ice it covers, and will thus reflect less incoming solar radiation. Instead, the debris will absorb radiation energy and transfer it through the cover layer to the debris-ice interface.

If the ice is covered by a relatively thin layer of debris (less than around 2 centimeters thick), the albedo effect is most important. [17] As scree accumulates atop the glacier, the ice’s albedo will begin to decrease. Instead, the glacier ice will absorb incoming solar radiation and transfer it to the upper surface of the ice. Then, the glacier ice begins to absorb the energy and uses it in the process of melting.

However, once the debris cover reaches 2 or more centimeters in thickness, the albedo effect begins to dissipate. [17] Instead, the debris blanket will act to insulate the glacier, preventing incoming radiation from penetrating the scree and reaching the ice surface. [17] In addition to rocky debris, thick snow cover can form an insulating blanket between the cold winter atmosphere and subnivean spaces in screes. [18] As a result, soil, bedrock, and also subterranean voids in screes do not freeze at high elevations.


A scree has many small interstitial voids, while an ice cave has a few large hollows. Due to cold air seepage and air circulation, the bottom of scree slopes have a thermal regime similar to ice caves.

Because subsurface ice is separated from the surface by thin, permeable sheets of sediment, screes experience cold air seepage from the bottom of the slope where sediment is thinnest. [6] This freezing circulating air maintains internal scree temperatures 6.8-9.0 °C colder than external scree temperatures. [19] These <0 °C thermal anomalies occur up to 1000m below sites with mean annual air temperatures of 0 °C.

Patchy permafrost, which forms under conditions <0 °C, probably exists at the bottom of some scree slopes despite mean annual air temperatures of 6.8–7.5 °C. [19]


During the last glacial period, a narrow ice-free corridor formed in the Scandinavian ice sheet, [20] introducing taiga species to the terrain. These boreal plants and animals still live in modern alpine and subarctic tundra, as well as high-altitude coniferous forests and mires. [21] [22]

Scree microclimates maintained by circulating freezing air create microhabitats that support taiga plants and animals that could not otherwise survive regional conditions. [6]

A Czech Republic Academy of Sciences research team lead by physical chemist Vlastimil Růžička, analyzing 66 scree slopes, published a paper in Journal of Natural History in 2012, reporting that: "This microhabitat, as well as interstitial spaces between scree blocks elsewhere on this slope, supports an important assemblage of boreal and arctic bryophytes, pteridophytes, and arthropods that are disjunct from their normal ranges far to the north. This freezing scree slope represents a classic example of a palaeo refugium that significantly contributes to [the] protection and maintenance of regional landscape biodiversity." [6]

Ice Mountain, a massive scree in West Virginia, supports distinctly different distributions of plant and animal species than northern latitudes. [6]

Scree running

Scree running is the activity of running down a scree slope; which can be very quick, as the scree moves with the runner. Some scree slopes are no longer possible to run, because the stones have been moved towards the bottom. [23] [24] [25]

See also

Related Research Articles

Erosion Processes which remove soil and rock from one place on the Earths crust, then transport it to another location where it is deposited

In earth science, erosion is the action of surface processes that removes soil, rock, or dissolved material from one location on the Earth's crust, and then transports it to another location. Erosion is distinct from weathering which involves no movement. Removal of rock or soil as clastic sediment is referred to as physical or mechanical erosion; this contrasts with chemical erosion, where soil or rock material is removed from an area by dissolution. Eroded sediment or solutes may be transported just a few millimetres, or for thousands of kilometres.

Glacier Persistent body of ice that is moving under its own weight

A glacier is a persistent body of dense ice that is constantly moving under its own weight. A glacier forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries. Glaciers slowly deform and flow under stresses induced by their weight, creating crevasses, seracs, and other distinguishing features. They also abrade rock and debris from their substrate to create landforms such as cirques, moraines, or fjords. Glaciers form only on land and are distinct from the much thinner sea ice and lake ice that forms on the surface of bodies of water.

Till Unsorted glacial sediment

Till or glacial till is unsorted glacial sediment.

Weathering Breaking down of rocks, soils and minerals as well as artificial materials through contact with the Earths atmosphere, water, and biota

Weathering is the breaking down of rocks, soils, and minerals as well as wood and artificial materials through contact with the Earth's atmosphere, water, and biological organisms. Weathering occurs in situ, that is, in the same place, with little or no movement, and thus should not be confused with erosion, which involves the transport of rocks and minerals by agents such as water, ice, snow, wind, waves and gravity and then being transported and deposited in other locations.

Landforms are categorized by characteristic physical attributes such as their creating process, shape, elevation, slope, orientation, rock exposure, and soil type.

Glacial erratic

A glacial erratic is glacially-deposited rock differing from the size and type of rock native to the area in which it rests. "Erratics" take their name from the Latin word errare, and are carried by glacial ice, often over distances of hundreds of kilometres. Erratics can range in size from pebbles to large boulders such as Big Rock in Alberta.

Cirque An amphitheatre-like valley formed by glacial erosion

A cirque is an amphitheatre-like valley formed by glacial erosion. Alternative names for this landform are corrie and cwm. A cirque may also be a similarly shaped landform arising from fluvial erosion.

Mass wasting Geomorphic process by which soil, sand, regolith, and rock move downslope

Mass wasting, also known as slope movement or mass movement, is the geomorphic process by which soil, sand, regolith, and rock move downslope typically as a solid, continuous or discontinuous mass, largely under the force of gravity, frequently with characteristics of a flow as in debris flows and mudflows. Types of mass wasting include creep, slides, flows, topples, and falls, each with its own characteristic features, and taking place over timescales from seconds to hundreds of years. Mass wasting occurs on both terrestrial and submarine slopes, and has been observed on Earth, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter's moon Io.


Colluvium is a general name for loose, unconsolidated sediments that have been deposited at the base of hillslopes by either rainwash, sheetwash, slow continuous downslope creep, or a variable combination of these processes. Colluvium is typically composed of a heterogeneous range of rock types and sediments ranging from silt to rock fragments of various sizes. This term is also used to specifically refer to sediment deposited at the base of a hillslope by unconcentrated surface runoff or sheet erosion.

Parent material is the underlying geological material in which soil horizons form. Soils typically inherit a great deal of structure and minerals from their parent material, and, as such, are often classified based upon their contents of consolidated or unconsolidated mineral material that has undergone some degree of physical or chemical weathering and the mode by which the materials were most recently transported.

Terminal moraine

A terminal moraine, also called end moraine, is a type of moraine that forms at the snout (edge) of a glacier, marking its maximum advance. At this point, debris that has accumulated by plucking and abrasion, has been pushed by the front edge of the ice, is driven no further and instead is deposited in a heap. Because the glacier acts very much like a conveyor belt, the longer it stays in one place, the greater the amount of material that will be deposited. The moraine is left as the marking point of the terminal extent of the ice.

Rock glacier Landform of angular rock debris frozen in interstitial ice, former "true" glaciers overlain by a layer of talus, or something in between

Rock glaciers are distinctive geomorphological landforms, consisting either of angular rock debris frozen in interstitial ice, former "true" glaciers overlain by a layer of talus, or something in-between. Rock glaciers are normally found at high latitudes and/or elevations, and may extend outward and downslope from talus cones, glaciers or terminal moraines of glaciers.

Plucking (glaciation)

Plucking, also referred to as quarrying, is a glacial phenomenon that is responsible for the erosion and transportation of individual pieces of bedrock, especially large "joint blocks". This occurs in a type of glacier called a "valley glacier". As a glacier moves down a valley, friction causes the basal ice of the glacier to melt and infiltrate joints (cracks) in the bedrock. The freezing and thawing action of the ice enlarges, widens, or causes further cracks in the bedrock as it changes volume across the ice/water phase transition, gradually loosening the rock between the joints. This produces large pieces of rock called joint blocks. Eventually these joint blocks come loose and become trapped in the glacier.

Acidalia Planitia

Acidalia Planitia is a plain on Mars. It is located between the Tharsis volcanic province and Arabia Terra to the north of Valles Marineris, centered at 49.8°N 339.3°E. Most of this region is found in the Mare Acidalium quadrangle, but a small part is in the Ismenius Lacus quadrangle. The plain contains the famous Cydonia region at the contact with the heavily cratered highland terrain.

Patterned ground

Patterned ground is the distinct and often symmetrical natural pattern of geometric shapes formed by the deformation of ground material in periglacial regions. It is typically found in remote regions of the Arctic, Antarctica, and the Outback in Australia, but is also found anywhere that freezing and thawing of soil alternate; patterned ground has also been observed in the hyper-arid Atacama Desert and on Mars. The geometric shapes and patterns associated with patterned ground are often mistaken as artistic human creations. The mechanism of the formation of patterned ground had long puzzled scientists but the introduction of computer-generated geological models in the past 20 years has allowed scientists to relate it to frost heaving, the expansion that occurs when wet, fine-grained, and porous soils freeze.

Ice lens

Ice lenses are bodies of ice formed when moisture, diffused within soil or rock, accumulates in a localized zone. The ice initially accumulates within small collocated pores or pre-existing crack, and, as long as the conditions remain favorable, continues to collect in the ice layer or ice lens, wedging the soil or rock apart. Ice lenses grow parallel to the surface and several centimeters to several decimeters deep in the soil or rock. Studies between 1990 and present have demonstrated that rock fracture by ice segregation is a more effective weathering process than the freeze-thaw process which older texts proposed.

Frost weathering Mechanical weathering processes induced by the freezing of water into ice

Frost weathering is a collective term for several mechanical weathering processes induced by stresses created by the freezing of water into ice. The term serves as an umbrella term for a variety of processes such as frost shattering, frost wedging and cryofracturing. The process may act on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, from minutes to years and from dislodging mineral grains to fracturing boulders. It is most pronounced in high-altitude and high-latitude areas and is especially associated with alpine, periglacial, subpolar maritime and polar climates, but may occur anywhere at sub-freezing temperatures if water is present.


A blockfield, felsenmeer, boulder field or stone field is a surface covered by boulder- or block-sized angular rocks usually associated with alpine and subpolar climates and periglaciation. Blockfields differ from screes and talus slope in that blockfields do not apparently originate from mass wastings. They are believed to be formed by frost weathering below the surface. An alternative theory suggests that modern blockfields may have originated from chemical weathering that occurred in the Neogene when the climate was relatively warmer. Following this thought the blockfields would then have been reworked by periglacial action.

Ice segregation Geological phenomenon

Ice segregation is the geological phenomenon produced by the formation of ice lenses, which induce erosion when moisture, diffused within soil or rock, accumulates in a localized zone. The ice initially accumulates within small collocated pores or pre-existing cracks, and, as long as the conditions remain favorable, continues to collect in the ice layer or ice lens, wedging the soil or rock apart. Ice lenses grow parallel to the surface and several centimeters to several decimeters deep in the soil or rock. Studies between 1990 and present have demonstrated that rock fracture by ice segregation is a more effective weathering process than the freeze-thaw process which older texts proposed.

Stratified slope deposits or grèzes litées are accumulations of debris that are traditionally associated with periglaciation but that can also form in other settings. The deposits have a weak sorting and a coarse bedding. Stratified slope deposits are usually found at the lower slopes of valleys where thicknesses vary but may exceed 10 meters. Periglacial stratified slope deposits are thought to be the result of rock fragmented by frost being accumulated downslope.


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