Abstract

Theories that propose feedbacks among climate, tectonics, and surface processes commonly assume that erosion is enhanced by glacial activity. Indeed, studies have shown that glaciers appear to limit the elevation of mountain ranges; however, comparisons between rates of glacial and nonglacial erosion are difficult to make. Ideally, such comparisons must hold precipitation and lithology constant, while only varying the erosional regime. Located in a climatic transition zone during the Pleistocene, the east-west–trending valleys of the Bitterroot Range present an opportunity for a quantitative analysis of glacial and nonglacial erosion because the north-facing sides of the valleys were glaciated, whereas the south-facing slopes were not. The different erosional regimes operating on either side of the valleys created strongly asymmetric ridges. Ridgelines separating the east-west–trending valleys have been pushed southward by glacial headwall retreat such that ridge-to-valley distances are ∼50% greater on the north-facing slopes than on the south-facing slopes. In addition, mean hillslope angles are 6° lower on the glaciated slopes than on the unglaciated slopes, and calculations of geophysical relief suggest that, on average, glaciers have removed nearly twice as much rock as nonglacial processes. Finally, we conclude that, although rates of vertical incision by glacial processes in the Bitterroot Range were more rapid than nonglacial processes, the dominant geomorphological impact of glaciers was lateral erosion by headwall retreat.

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