From Snow to Firn to Glacier ice


How do we build a glacier? We start with a snowflake. Snow, over time, is compressed into firn, and then into glacier ice.

Snow falls in cold regions, such as mountain tops or in polar regions. In glaciology, snow refers to material that has not changed since it fell1.

Snow is very light and fluffy, and has a very low density. If the snow is wetter, it will have an increased density. Snowflakes have a hexagonal structure, and fallen snow has a significant amount of air in it.

Snow flakes by Wilson Bentley. Bentley was a bachelor farmer whose hobby was photographing snow flakes. ; Image ID: wea02087, Historic NWS Collection ; Location: Jericho, Vermont ; Photo Date: 1902 Winter. From Wikimedia Commons


Firn is usually defined as snow that is at least one year old and has therefore survived one melt season, without being transformed to glacier ice.

Firn is transformed gradually to glacier ice as density increases with depth, as older snow is buried by newer snow falling on top of it. Year after year, successive accumulation layers are built up. In the accumulation zone of a glacier, density therefore increases with depth; the rate depends on the local climate and rate of accumulation1. Firn transforms to glacier ice at a density of 830 kg m-3.

New snow (immediately after falling, calm conditions50-70
Damp new snow100-200
Settled snow200-300
Wind-packed snow350-400
Very wet snow and firn700-800
Glacier ice830-923
Typical densities (kg m-3). From Cuffey and Paterson, 2010.
A scientist collecting snow and ice samples from the wall of a snow pit. Fresh snow can be seen at the surface and en:glacier ice at the bottom of the pit wall. The snow layers are composed of progressively denser en:firn. Taku Glacier, Juneau Icefield, en:Tongass National Forest, en:Alaska. From Wikimedia Commons

Firn transforms to glacier ice in 3-5 years in the temperate Upper Seward Glacier in the St Elias Mountains near the Alaska-Yukon border. Firn becomes ice at a depth of about 13 m1. At sites like this with rapid snow accumulation, the depth of a firn layer, and the load on it, increases rapidly with depth.

However, in cold, dry East Antarctica, firn becomes ice at a depth of 64 m at Byrd and 95 m at Vostok. 280 years are needed at Byrd, and 2500 at Vostok. Low temperatures slow the transformation. Temperatures at Vostok, the coldest region of Earth, are 30°C lower than Byrd, which explains the slower increase in density. In addition, slow accumulation gives slow burial, and a small load each year; the increase in density takes much longer.

Typically, the transformation of firn to ice takes 100-300 years, and a depth of 50 – 80 m1.

Glacier ice

Firn becomes glacier ice when the interconnecting air or water-filled passageways between the grains are sealed off (“pore closure”)1. Air is isolated in separate bubbles. This occurs at a density of 830 kg m-3. The air space between particles is reduced, bonds form between them, and the particles grow larger. This is a process known as sintering. Increasing pressure compresses the bubbles, placing the enclosed air under pressure and increasing the density of the ice2.

Fresh snowflakes, which have a complex shape, have a large surface area. Over time and under pressure, the surface area is reduced, the surface is smoothed, and the total surface area is reduced. Fresh, complex snowflakes are transformed into rounded particles.

Formation of glacier ice. Luis Maria Benitez, Wikimedia Commons

The transformation of firn to ice is much faster where there is melting and refreezing2.  Meltwater can percolate downwards, infilling porespaces, and the displaced air escapes upwards. If the snow is under 0°C, the water will freeze, producing areas of compact ice.  This will produce high density ice much more rapidly than in colder regions without melting.

The density of pure glacier ice is usually taken as 917 kg m-3. This strictly is only true at 0°C and in the upper layers of ice sheets and mountain glaciers; the density may be greater at the mid-depth ranges in polar ice sheets, where there are no bubbles and temperatures are -20°C to -40°C1.

Below 4 km of ice, such as at the centre of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the pressure would increase the density to 921 kg m-3.


Bubbles are common in glacier ice. Bubbles can contain liquid water or atmospheric gases, making them very useful for ice core research. The air in the bubble largely reflects the atmospheric concentrations when the ice formed1. In polar environments, bubbles in the ice occupy about 10% of the volume when firn turns to ice.

Glacier ice with many bubbles exposed on the ice shelf. It is melting and thinning rapidly.
Close up of white bubble-rich ice. Note the sharp junction between the coarse-clear ice and bubble-rich ice.

With greater depth in polar ice sheets, bubbles shrink as the overlying ice increases. The gas pressure within the bubbles therefore increases, and at certain depths, the gas attains a dissociation pressure. The bubbles begin to disappear as the gas molecules form clathrate hydrates1.  This process takes thousands of years.


Glacier ice contains various impurities in tiny amounts. By most scales, glacier ice is a very pure solid-earth material, because the processes leading to snowfall on a glacier – evaporation, condensation, precipitation – act as a natural distillation system1.

However, glaciers can contain impurities. The dirtiest glaciers are mountain glaciers, where debris can fall directly onto the ice surface. On ice sheets and glaciers, dust and other debris may blow onto the ice surface.

Iceberg laden with debris from a glacier, Antarctic Peninsula

Debris on the ice surface can affect the absorption of energy at the ice surface, and lead to increased or decreased melting.

Supraglacial debris on Unnamed Glacier, James Ross Island, Antarctic Peninsula

Layers in the ice

Glaciers are composed of sedimentary layers in their accumulation zones, formed of annual layers of snowfall. These layers are initially parallel to the glacier surface. This is the primary stratification in structural glaciology.

In temperate and subpolar settings, the annual sedimentary layers consist of alternating thick layers of bubble-rich ice, which originated as winter snow, and thin layers of clear ice, which are the refrozen meltwater from the summer melt season.

Glacier ice exposed in an ice-cored moraine. Note the foliation with coarse clear ice and white bubble-rich ice.
Primary stratification on a glacier on James Ross Island, Antarctic Peninsula.

Debris horizons may form, when summer melting concentrates debris (such as rockfall and wind-blown dust) on the ice surface.

In cold polar regions, annual layering forms instead by seasonal variation of snow metamorphism and wind deposition1.

This 19 cm long of GISP2 ice core from 1855 m depth shows annual layers in the ice. This section contains 11 annual layers with summer layers (arrowed) sandwiched between darker winter layers. From the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Wikimedia Commons.

Blue glacier ice

Glacier ice is blue because the longer visible wavelengths are absorbed. The more energetic, blue, wavelengths are scattered back2.  The effect is greatest with deep, basal ice, which is bubble free and has large crystals. The blue colour tends therefore to be most intense in the calls of calved icebergs or fresh fractures.

Rough, weathered ice and fresh snow will appear white because preferential absorption does not occur.

This iceberg is formed from basal glacier ice. It is blue an has basal dirt. Differential melting forms holes all over its surface.

Further reading


1.           Cuffey, K. M. & Paterson, W. S. B. The Physics of Glaciers, 4th edition. (Academic Press, 2010).

2.           Benn, D. I. & Evans, D. J. A. Glaciers & Glaciation. (Hodder Education, 2010).

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