Erosion and melting of glaciers in the Arctic and in Switzerland: what comparisons can be made?

During the Arctic Century expedition to the Russian Arctic in summer of 2021, our research group’s aim was to understand if glacier erosion on the archipelagos could be altered in response to changes in glacier dynamics in the region. We know very little about erosional processes in the Arctic. However, we hope that knowledge of erosion that has been gained by studying mountain glaciers, such as those in Switzerland, might yield important insights into glacial erosion in the Russian Arctic.

Large differences persist in the topography and climate of glaciers in the Russian Arctic compared to mountain glaciers in Switzerland. The glaciers in the Russian Arctic largely lie on islands with relatively flat topography. Without topography to guide the glaciers’ flow, they deform under their own weight in many directions, similar to a drop of honey that falls on a flat table.

Conversely, mountain glaciers in Switzerland are constrained to flow down the steep valleys that they have eroded. Additionally, glaciers in the Russian Arctic lie in a much cooler climate than those in Switzerland.

Despite these differences, similar processes influence the erosion of these two types of glaciers. Glaciers erode and detach material by sliding and scraping over bedrock. Also, water and ice must transport or carry this detached material from the glacier bed to the end of the glacier.

In the Russian Arctic, the flatter glaciers will slide and erode in more specific locations, and possibly slower, compared to the mountain glaciers in Switzerland.

Additionally, the cooler climate in the Russian Arctic suggests that less water may be available below these glaciers to transport subglacial sediment. As a result, we expect that glacier erosion in the Russian Arctic will be less than that in the Alps.

However, our data must still be analyzed.

We expect that glacier erosion in the Russian Arctic will be less than that in the Alps.”

Ian Delaney



 Dr. Ian Delaney, Lecturer at the Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics I UNIL


This article is related to the presentation “Beginning to understand a changing landscape: insights from a long boat trip in the Arctic” by Ian Delaney, Episode 3 of our CLIMACT Seminar Series. Watch Episode 3.

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