Subglacial erosion

What is subglacial erosion?

Subglacial erosion refers to processes that act at a glacier or ice sheet bed that cause the Earth’s surface to be worn down, broken up, and transported by ice. These processes leave behind some of the classic signs of glacial activity, in the form of erosional landforms and landscapes.

Subglacial erosion is one of the key components of the glacial system, yet it remains poorly understood despite decades of research. This is largely due to the inaccessible nature of glacier beds, which limit the opportunity for direct observations or measurements1,2.

Because of this, processes of subglacial erosion have been based on theoretical models3-6 or inferred through investigations of landforms left behind in deglaciated areas. Nonetheless, direct access to glacier beds has been achieved in rare instances7,8, by accessing natural or artificial tunnels, which allow the installation of monitoring equipment and direct measurements to be made.

These approaches have identified two main mechanisms of subglacial erosion:

  • Glacial abrasion, the wearing down of bedrock surfaces
  • Glacial plucking or quarrying, the removal of rock fragments and blocks from the bed

Glacial abrasion

Glacial abrasion is the wear of a bedrock surface by rock fragments transported at the glacier base. This can happen by (i) the scoring (striation) of bedrock by rock particles (usually > 1 cm) embedded in the glacier sole, due to ice flow across a rock surface (see image below); and (ii) the polishing of bedrock surfaces by smaller, silt-sized particles that are dragged across the bedrock1.2.

Fine-grained debris frozen to the basal ice of Nigardsbreen glacier, west Norway, with debris coming into contact with underlying bedrock. Photo: Jacob M. Bendle

Scoring results in the formation of thin, linear grooves across a bedrock surface (see image below). These are known as striations (or striae). While striations may appear smooth, close inspection of striae beds show they form by a series of small rock fractures due to the build-up of stress below a mobile rock particle9.

Crossing-cutting glacial striations in bedrock, Maine, USA. Photo: Neil P. Thompson

Polishing, on the other hand, results in the overall smoothing down of rough areas of the bed (see image below). This process can be likened to the effect of sandpaper on wood.

Glacially smoothed bedrock recently uncovered due to retreat of Nigardsbreen glacier, west Norway. Photo Jacob M. Bendle

Controls on glacial abrasion

Rate of basal sliding

As glacial abrasion is caused by the movement of rock particles across bedrock, it is closely associated with basal sliding1,2. In warm-based (temperate) glaciers, where ice exists at the pressure melting point throughout, basal sliding occurs and a high flux of debris is dragged across a bedrock surface. By contrast, cold-based glaciers are frozen to their beds, so sliding rates are very low and the ability to abrade the bed limited1,2.

Debris concentration

Along with the rate of basal sliding, the amount of debris embedded in the glacier base also influences the rate of abrasion5. However, it is not as simple as a higher debris load resulting in faster rates of abrasion. In fact, a glacier with a high basal debris concentration results in friction between the ice and its bed, slowing the rate of basal sliding (see diagram below). Instead, glacial abrasion is most effective where basal debris is relatively sparse, as the reduced friction promotes faster sliding1.

The effect of basal debris concentration and glacier sliding on abrasion rate. Graph redrawn after Bennett and Glasser (2009)

Glacial plucking or quarrying

Plucking or quarrying is the fracture and removal of larger rock fragments (>1 cm) from the bed. In much the same way as the striation process, plucking occurs where stress build-up beneath an overriding rock particle results in the expansion of pre-existing cracks in the bedrock and the detachment of rock fragments1,2 (see image below). The fractured bedrock can then entrained by the overriding glacier and transported downglacier.

Vertical  joints and fractures observed in the bedrock of the formerly glaciated Ibañez valley, central Patagonia. Ice flow was from left to right. In the foreground, a former zone of plucking is illustrated by the ‘missing’ blocks of bedrock at the downglacier end of a roches mountonnée. Photo: Jacob M. Bendle.

There are several main ways by which plucked rock fragments can be entrained into the base of a glacier:

  • Debris can be frozen-on to the glacier sole as meltwater refreezes in the low-pressure zone in the lee (i.e. the downglacier end) of bedrock obstacles (see diagram below); this process is therefore strongly associated with the regelation mechanism of basal sliding
  • Debris can be frozen-on to the glacier sole at the boundary between warm-based (temperate) and cold-based ice, for example, approaching the glacier snout where ice thickness decreases and pressure melting of basal ice is inhibited (see diagram below)
  • Debris can be simply dragged from the bedrock and enveloped into basal ice, particularly where it is very loose
Freeze-on of plucked (quarried) debris in a low pressure zone at the downglacier end of a bedrock bump, due to refreezing of meltwater associated with regelation. Source: Jacob M. Bendle.
Meltwater and debris frozen in to basal ice layers at the transition from warm based to cold based ice (in this instance, at the glacier margin). Source: Jacob M. Bendle

Controls on plucking

Bedrock lithology

As described above, plucking tends to be focused along pre-existing cracks in bedrock8. The lithology (or rock type) of the bed will therefore influence its resistance to erosion. For example, in well-jointed rocks with deep, near-continuous cracks (e.g. shale), plucking rates will be higher than in rocks with fewer or more widely-spaced joints and cracks (e.g. granite).


Both theoretical models10 and direct observations beneath modern glaciers8 show that the presence of cavities at the bed is an important control on plucking. When a cavity is filled with water, water pressure offsets the overburden pressure resulting from the weight of overlying ice (‘T1’ in diagram below). In this situation, stresses in the bed are highest adjacent to the cavity. If water leaves a cavity and the water pressure drops, stresses in the bedrock increase considerably and lead to plucking of rock fragments (‘T2’ in diagram below).

In T1, the water pressure (pw) associated with a water-filled cavity in the lee of a bedrock bump offsets the downward directed ice overburden pressure (pi), preventing bedrock fracture. In T2, the water has drained, and a high stress zone (red) develops in the bedrock around the cavity edge, which may result in bed fracture and plucking. Source: Jacob M. Bendle

Therefore, plucking rates will be highest where the bed surface is undulating (i.e. there are abundant sites for cavities to form) and when the supply of meltwater causes fluctuation in water pressure, such as during the ablation season, where diurnal (day-night) melting patterns often develop1,2.


Subglacial erosion occurs at all ice masses, from small cirque glaciers to large continental ice sheets. It is also fundamentally linked to ice motion (e.g. sliding) and, in turn, mass balance regime and glacier thermal regime. Subglacial erosion processes therefore offer an excellent example of the connections between various components of the glacial system.

Other pages in this section of the site explore the effect of glacial erosion on Earth’s surface morphology.


[1] Bennett, M.R., and Glasser, N.F. (2009) Glacial Geology: Ice Sheets and Landforms. Wiley-Blackwell.

[2] Benn, D.I., and Evans, D.J.A. (2010) Glaciers and Glaciation. Routledge.

[3] Boulton, G.S. (1974) Processes and patterns of glacial erosion. In Glacial Geomorphology (ed. D.R. Coates) Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 41-87.

[4] Hallet, B. (1979) A theoretical model of glacial abrasion. Journal of Glaciology23, 39-50.

[5] Hallet, B. (1981) Glacial abrasion and sliding: their dependence on the debris concentration in basal ice. Annals of Glaciology2, 23-28.

[6] Iverson, N.R. (2012) A theory of glacial quarrying for landscape evolution models. Geology40, 679-682.

[7] Cohen, D., Iverson, N.R., Hooyer, T.S., Fischer, U.H., Jackson, M. and Moore, P.L. (2005). Debris‐bed friction of hard‐bedded glaciers. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface110(F2).

[8] Cohen, D., Hooyer, T.S., Iverson, N.R., Thomason, J.F. and Jackson, M. (2006). Role of transient water pressure in quarrying: A subglacial experiment using acoustic emissions. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface111(F3).

[9] Drewry, D.J. (1986) Glacial Geologic Processes. Edward Arnold, London.

[10] Morland, L.W., and Morris, E.M. (1977) Stress in an elastic bedrock hump due to glacier flow. Journal of Glaciology, 18, 67-75.