The Periglacial Environment, Fourth Edition, is an authoritative overview of the world's cold, non-glacial environments. First published in 1976 and subsequently revised in 1996 and 2007, the text has been the international standard for nearly 40 years.
The Fourth Edition continues to be a personal interpretation of the frost-induced conditions, geomorphic processes and landforms that characterize periglacial environments. Part One discusses the periglacial concept and describes the typical climates and ecosystems that are involved. Part Two describes the geocryology (permafrost science) associated with frozen ground. Part Three outlines the weathering and geomorphic processes associated with cold-climate conditions. Part Four provides insight into the periglacial environments of the Quaternary, especially the Late Pleistocene. Part Five describes some of the problems associated with human occupancy in regions that experience frozen ground and cold-climate conditions.
* Extensively revised and updated
* Written by an expert with over 50 years of field research
* Draws upon the author's personal experience from Northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Tibet, Antarctica, Svalbard, Scandinavia, southern South America, Western Europe and eastern North America
This book is an invaluable reference for advanced undergraduates in geography, geology, earth sciences and environmental sciences programs, and to resource managers and geotechnical engineers interested in cold regions.
HUGH M. FRENCH is now Professor Emeritus, University of Ottawa, and an Adjunct Professor, University of Victoria. He lives on southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
1.1 The Periglacial Concept
The term 'periglacial' was first used by a Polish geologist, Walery von Lozinski, when referring to the mechanical disintegration of sandstones in the Gorgany Range of the southern Carpathian Mountains, a region now part of central Roumania. Lozinski described the angular rock rubble surfaces that characterize the mountain summits as 'periglacial facies' formed by the previous action of intense frost (von Lozinski, 1909). Following the Xl Geological Congress in Stockholm in 1910 and the subsequent field excursion to Svalbard in 1911 (von Lozinski, 1912), the concept of a 'periglacial zone' was introduced to refer to the climatic and geomorphic conditions peripheral to Pleistocene ice sheets and glaciers. Theoretically, this was a tundra zone that extended as far south as the tree line. In the mountains, it was a zone between the timberline and the snow line (Figure 1.1).
Figure 1.1 Schematic diagram illustrating limits of the periglacial zone: (a) high latitudes; (b) alpine areas.
Almost certainly, Lozinski was influenced by a Swedish geologist, J.G. Andersson, who had summarized, a few years earlier, his observations on mass-wasting on Bear Island (latitude 74°N), a cold, wet and windy island in the northern North Atlantic (Andersson, 1906, pp. 94-97; 104-110). It was Andersson who introduced the term 'solifluction' to the scientific literature. He also described the 'stone runs', or quartzite blockfields, that characterize the gentle slopes of the equally cold and damp Falkland Islands, located in the South Atlantic. On hearsay alone, the latter phenomena had already been compared to the 'rubble-drift' and 'head' deposits of southern England by the English geologist James Geikie (1874, pp. 722-723) who attributed them to a 'cold climate more severe than the present'.
Lozinski referred to his rock-rubble accumulations as periglacial facies (Figure 1.2). In subsequent years, angular rock-rubble accumulations on upland slopes and summits were widely reported in the scientific literature. Today, they are usually referred to as 'blockfields' or 'mountain-top detritus' (see Table 15.1).
Figure 1.2 Typical 'periglacial facies' developed on granite in the Carpathian Mountains, southern Poland. Note that the periglacial facies described by Lozinski were in sandstone and further to the east in the Gorgany Range, now in Roumania. The photograph was supplied courtesy of Dr R. Zurawek. See also 'mountain-top detritus'; Chapter 15.
Over a hundred years later, Lozinski's definition is regarded as unnecessarily restricting. Few, if any, modern analogs exist (French, 2000). There are two main reasons. First, frost-action phenomena are known to occur at great distances from both present-day and Pleistocene ice margins. In fact, frost-action phenomena can be completely unrelated to ice-marginal conditions. Second, although Lozinski used the term to refer primarily to areas rather than processes, the term has increasingly been understood to refer to a complex of cold-dominated geomorphic processes. These include not only frost-action and permafrost-related processes but also the range of azonal processes associated with snow, running water and wind. These demand neither a peripheral ice-marginal location nor excessive cold. Instead, they assume distinctive or extreme characteristics under cold, non-glacial conditions.
1.2 Diagnostic Criteria
Periglacial environments are relatively simple to define. They are characterized by intense frost and restricted to areas that experience cold, but essentially non-glacial, climates (French, 2007).
Two criteria are regarded as diagnostic. First, there is ground freezing and thawing. According to J. Tricart (1968, p. 830), '.the periglacial morphogenetic milieu is that where the influence of freeze-thaw oscillations is dominant'. Second, all periglacial environments experience either seasonally-frozen or perennially-frozen ground. The latter, if it persists for more than two years, is termed permafrost (Muller, 1943). According to T. L. Péwé (1969, p. 4), '.permafrost is the common denominator of the periglacial environment, and is practically ubiquitous in the active periglacial zone'.
Periglacial environments should not be confused with either proglacial or paraglacial environments, although both may be regarded as being periglacial in nature. Whereas 'periglacial' is essentially a function of process, 'proglacial' is a function of location and 'paraglacial' is a function of the degree and mode of recovery from a previous geomorphic system (Ballantyne, 2002; Slaymaker, 2009). It follows that periglacial and proglacial environments are largely adjusted to contemporary processes while paraglacial environments are explicitly transitional and transient in nature. Thus, periglacial landscapes that existed during the cold periods of the Quaternary in areas that no longer experience periglacial conditions are largely paraglacial in nature. The term 'periglaciation' is used to describe the degree of cold-climate landscape adjustment (Ballantyne and Harris, 1994). This is discussed in Chapter 15.
1.3 Periglacial Environments
Periglacial environments occur not only as tundra zones in either the high latitudes or adjacent to glaciers and ice sheets, as defined by Lozinski's concept, but also as forested areas south of tree line and at high elevation in the mountains of the mid and low latitudes. These complicate any simple delineation of periglacial environments. So-called 'periglacial' conditions often extend south of the latitudinal tree line and below the altitudinal timberline. This is partly because many areas of the northern boreal forest are underlain by relict permafrost while, in alpine regions, glaciers may extend below timberline and into the forest zone. Finally, the tree line is a zone rather than a line and may extend over a latitudinal distance of 100-150 km.
In specific terms, periglacial environments include (a) the polar deserts and polar semi-deserts of the High Arctic; (b) the extensive tundra zones of the high northern latitudes; (c) the northern parts of the boreal forests of North America and Eurasia; and (d) the alpine zones that lie above timberline and below snow-line in mid-and low-latitude mountains (Figure 1.3). To these must be added (i) the ice-free areas of Antarctica and the southern tip of South America; (ii) the extensive high-elevation (montane) environments of central Asia, the largest of which is the Qinghai-Xizang (Tibet) Plateau of China; and (iii) small oceanic islands in the higher latitudes of both Polar Regions.
Figure 1.3 The global extent of the periglacial domain in the northern hemisphere after J. Karte, 1979, and J. Karte and H. Liedtke, 1981.
The most extensive periglacial environments are either arctic or subarctic in nature. The boundary between the two approximates the northern limit of trees, the so-called tree line. This is a zone, 30-150 km wide in extent, north of which trees are no longer able to survive. North of the tree line, the terrain is perennially frozen and the surface thaws for periods of only 2-3 months each summer. Ecologists refer to the vegetated but treeless arctic as tundra. Where Precambrian basement rocks occur, as in the tablelands of northern Canada and northern Siberia, the tundra is barren. Near the tree line the tundra is often referred to as shrub-tundra. At higher latitudes, the tundra progressively changes into semi-desert and, ultimately, into polar desert terrain (a 'frost-rubble' zone). The latter occurs in the High Arctic of Canada, northeast Greenland, Svalbard and Novaya Zemblya. In Antarctica, the relatively small ice-free areas are also true polar deserts. Here, the landscape consists of rock-rubble surfaces that are kept free of snow and ice by sublimation from strong katabatic winds that flow outwards from the Antarctic ice sheet.
South of the tree line, the environment is subarctic in nature. Near the tree line there is a transition zone from tundra to forest consisting of either open woodland or forest-tundra. Here, the trees are stunted and deformed, often being less than 3-4 m high. This zone grades into the boreal forest, or taiga, an immense zone of almost continuous coniferous forest extending across both North America and Eurasia. The southern boundary of the sub-arctic is less clearly defined than its northern boundary; typically, coniferous species begin to be replaced by others of either local or temperate distribution, such as oak, hemlock and beech, or by steppe, grassland and semi-arid woodland in more continental areas. These cool-climate ecosystems, which experience deep seasonal frost, represent the outer limits of the periglacial environment.
The mid-latitude alpine periglacial environments are spatially less extensive than those of high latitude. They are dominated by both diurnal and seasonal temperature effects and by much higher solar radiation. In such environments, the timberline constitutes the boundary between the alpine and sub-alpine. The alpine environments are dominated by steep slopes, tundra (alpine) plants,...