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Glacier Features

Common characteristics of glaciers and common terminology used in reference to glaciers.

Glacier cross section

Glacier features


  • Firn is compacted granular snow that has been on the glacier at least one year. Firn is the building blocks of the ice that makes the glacier.
  • The accumulation zone is the area that remains snow-covered throughout the year because of year-round snowfall. The snowfall exceeds melt.
  • The ablation zone is the area where the snow melts off the ice in summer. Melt equals or exceeds snowfall.
  • The firn line separates the accumulation and ablation zones. As you approach this area, you may see "strips" of snow in the ice. Be cautious, as these could be snow bridges remaining over crevasses. Remember that snow bridges will be weakest lower on the glacier as you enter the accumulation zone. The firn line can change annually.
  • A bergschrund is a large crevasse at the head of a glacier caused by separation of active (flowing) and inactive (stationary) ice. These will usually be seen at the base of a major incline and can make an ascent on that area difficult.
  • A moat is a wall formed at the head (start) of the glacier. These are formed by heat reflected from valley wall.
  • A crevasse is a split or crack in the glacier surface. These are formed when the glacier moves over an irregularity in the bed surface.
  • A transverse crevasse forms perpendicular to the flow of a glacier. These are normally found where a glacier flows over a slope with a gradient change of 30 degrees or more.
  • Longitudinal crevasses form parallel to the flow of a glacier. These are normally found where a glacier widens.
  • Diagonal crevasses form at an angle to the flow of a glacier. These are normally found along the edges where a glacier makes a bend.
  • A snow bridge is a somewhat supportive structure of snow that covers a crevasse. Most of these are formed by the wind. The strength of a snow bridge depends on the snow itself.
  • Icefalls are a jumble of crisscross crevasses and large ice towers that are normally found where a glacier flows over a slope with a gradient change of 25 degrees or more.
  • Seracs are large pinnacles or columns of ice that are normally found in icefalls or on hanging glaciers.
  • Ice avalanches are falling chunks of ice normally occurring near icefalls or hanging glaciers.
  • A moraine is an accumulation of rock or debris on a glacier caused by rockfall or avalanche of valley walls.
  • A lateral moraine is formed on sides of glacier.
  • A medial moraine is in the middle of the glacier. This is also formed as two glaciers come together or as a glacier moves around a central peak.
  • A terminal moraine is at the base of a glacier and is formed as moraines meet at the snout or terminus of a glacier.
  • A ground moraine is the rocky debris extending out from the terminus of a glacier. This is formed by the scraping of earth as the glacier grew or surged and exposed as the glacier retreats.
  • A Nunatak is a rock projection protruding through the glacier as the glacier flows around it.
  • An ice mill is a hole in the glacier formed by swirling water on the surface. These can be large enough for a human to slip into.
  • Pressure ridges are wavelike ridges that form on glacier normally after a glacier has flowed over icefalls.
  • A glacier window is an opening at the snout of the glacier where water runs out of the glacier.

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