Ice thickness and topographic relief in glaciated landscapes of the western USA

Simon H. Brocklehurst, Kelin Whipple, David Foster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The development of relief in glaciated landscapes plays a crucial role in hypotheses relating climate change and tectonic processes. In particular, glaciers can only be responsible for peak uplift if they are capable of generating significant relief in formerly nonglaciated landscapes. Previous work has suggested that relief in glaciated landscapes should scale with the thickness of the ice. Here we summarise a field-based test of this hypothesis in two mountain ranges in the western United States, the Sierra Nevada, California, and the Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado. These areas exhibit a range of degrees of glacial occupation during the Quaternary, including some drainage basins essentially unoccupied by ice, allowing a detailed exploration of how relief in different parts of a drainage basin evolves in response to glacial modification. We mapped last glacial maximum (LGM) trimlines to estimate the ice thickness at the equilibrium line altitude during the LGM, and determined several metrics of relief for drainage basins across the full spectrum of LGM ice extents. Comparison between measures of relief and ice thickness estimates indicates that relief production in glaciated mountain belts scales with ice thickness and consequently also drainage area. We extended our study to the Bitterroot Range in Idaho/Montana, and the Teton Range in Wyoming, for a more comprehensive understanding of sub-ridgeline relief, or 'missing mass'. This measure of mean relief is surprisingly little affected by either the degree of glacial modification or the total material removed by glaciers, but appears to be influenced by the more active tectonics of the Teton Range. While the effects of glacial modification on the landscape are clear (valley widening, hanging valley formation), the overall change in the relief structure of the mountain ranges studied here is surprisingly modest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)35-51
Number of pages17
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - May 1 2008


  • Glacial geomorphology
  • Landscape evolution
  • Relief

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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