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Glaciers, known for erosion, can help mountains grow

Glaciers' 'buzz-saw effect' can level mountains. But at high altitudes, glaciers can freeze to mountains and shield against erosion, new research suggests.

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High mountain glaciers, like these in the background in Patagonia, Chile, may actually help mountains grow, according to a new study.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Mountain glaciers have long been recognized as powerful agents grinding down the craggy landscapes they occupy.

But new research suggests that under the right conditions, long-lived mountain glaciers and ice caps also can facilitate the growth of mountains – highlighting the role global climate change on multi-million-year time scales can have on the tectonic processes that stretch, knead, and fracture Earth's fragile crust.

In short, if conditions are cold enough, large-scale glaciers freeze to the land beneath them, significantly slowing the glaciers' movement downslope and substantially reducing the amount of erosion the mountain might otherwise experience. They protect the mountain as it grows, rather than scrape away at it.

That leaves the forces driving the growth of a mountain range free to build the peaks at a faster rate than glaciers whittle away at the summits.

Scientists have observed frozen-base glaciers in mountains in Antarctica and northern Canada. But these mountains are no longer are rising. The new study, published in the latest issue of the journal Nature, represents the first time scientists have been able to document the influence such glaciers have on mountains that are still rising at a geologically speedy clip.

The results "were quite surprising," says Stuart Thomson, a geologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who led the team of US and Chilean scientists exploring the role of the effect of long-lived mountain glaciers on the evolution of mountain ranges.

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