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Spatial distribution of glacial erosion rates in the St. Elias range, Alaska, inferred from a realistic model of glacier dynamics


Glaciers have been principal erosional agents in many orogens throughout much of the recent geological past. A modern example is the St. Elias Mountains in southeastern Alaska; it is a highly convergent, complex orogen, which has been glaciated for much of its history. We examine the Seward-Malaspina Glacier system, which comprises two of the largest temperate glaciers in the world. We focus on the pattern of erosion within its narrow passage through the St. Elias Mountains, the Seward Throat. Measured glacier surface velocities and elevations provide constraints for a full-stress numerical flowband model that enables us to quantitatively determine the glacier thickness profile, which is not easily measured on temperate glaciers, and the basal characteristics relevant for erosion. These characteristics at the bed, namely the water pressure, normal and shear stresses, and sliding velocity, are then used to infer the spatial variation in erosion rates using several commonly invoked erosion laws. The calculations show that the geometry of the glacier basin exerts a far stronger control on the spatial variation of erosion rates than does the equilibrium line altitude, which is often assumed to be important in studies of glaciated orogens. The model provides a quantitative basis for understanding why erosion rates are highest around the Seward Throat, which is generally consistent with local and large-scale geological observations and thermochronologic evidence. Moreover, model results suggest how glacier characteristics could be used to infer zones of active or recent uplift in ice-mantled orogens. © 2012. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.

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