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A glacier carves a U-shaped valley

U-shaped glacial valley
spacer image Glaciers carve some of our planet’s most spectaculer scenery, but it’s not until glaciers melt that their rasping handiwork is exposed.

spacer image Glaciers and running water sculpt the land in different ways. While streams tend to cut winding curves and V-shaped valleys, glaciers carve nearly straight valleys with U-shaped cross-sections. The imposing, sheer rock walls of glacial troughs (U-shaped valleys) are among the most fundamental and distinctive features of glaciated landscapes. The U-shaped valleys left behind by valley glaciers are usually 1 kilometer (1.6 miles) or more in width and typically hundreds of meters high.
spacer image Follow along to see how it’s done.

A glacier carves a U-shaped valley: Step 1

Start with a typical stream

spacer image As streams wind their way downstream they tend to cut away the outsides of bends and deposit sediment on the insides of bends. This gradually makes the stream valley more sinuous.
spacer image Running water gradually cuts a deeper V-shape. The end result is a typical meandering, V-shaped stream valley.

A glacier carves a U-shaped valley: Step 2

A glacier carves a U-shaped valley: Step 3

Glaciers move in

spacer image Climate cools and glaciers grow and begin their slow downhill push, usually taking the easiest path down - the path already cut by streams. Glaciers ooze into stream channels, but unlike streams, glaciers focus their grinding energy on the insides of bends. Bit by bit, the glacier eats away at the meandering curves of the original stream valley, carving a wider, straighter valley.

A glacier carves a U-shaped valley: Step 4

Work of a glacier revealed

spacer image During times with warmer climate like today’s (called interglacial periods), glaciers gradually melt away except at high elevations and latitudes. As glaciers melt, their effect on the landscape is revealed. Former stream valleys have been transfomed to broad, very steep-sided troughs and waterfalls cascade from hanging valleys perched high above the valley floor.

Yosemite Valley view

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This page was last updated on 8/10/99