USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station


Pacific Southwest Research Station
800 Buchanan Street
West Annex Building
Albany, CA 94710-0011

(510) 559-6300

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Programs and Projects


Sierra Nevada Research Center


Rock Glaciers and Periglacial Rock-Ice Features in the Sierra Nevada

Classification, distribution, hydrology, and climate relationships; their significance for the west in a climate-change context

Study Plan
Research Project Summary


rock glacier cirque, Mt Gibbs Rock glaciers and related periglacial rock-ice features (RIF) are widespread landforms in arctic and alpine environments with cold temperatures, low humidities, and abundant shattered rock. Compared to typical ice glaciers, however, rock glaciers are little understood and studied. Rock glaciers are especially significant in the context of a warming world: While ice glaciers have been retreating worldwide, water contained in the ice of rock glaciers or RIFs is protected from rising air temperatures by insulating rock mantles. As a result, thaw of ice in rock glaciers significantly lags behind ice glaciers. For this reason, rock glaciers are likely to become increasingly critical alpine water reservoirs as temperatures rise.

Rock glaciers and RIFs are ubiquitous in the high Sierra Nevada south of the Lake Tahoe region, but no previous information exists on their classification, rangewide distribution, hydrology, or modern climate relations. Because these features are rock-covered and often appear similar superficially to rockfalls, talus, and scree slopes, their presence and hydrologic significance have been widely overlooked. A few focused studies on paleoclimate and glacial advances have been conducted on a subset of glacigenic (debris-covered) rock glaciers in the southern Sierra Nevada, but beyond this, rock glacier implications have not been incorporated into studies that estimate regional distribution and extent of stored ice, assess timing and abundance of mountain streamflows, model changes in water yields under warming climates, or define wetland alpine refugia for biodiversity. As elsewhere, rock glaciers in the Sierra Nevada remain "...landforms whose wide distribution, occurrence, and significance often go unnoticed".

Our studies seek to fill research gaps and address the distribution and significance of these alpine features in a climate-change context.

Rock glacier, Mt Gibbs


Relative to rock glaciers and RIFs in the Sierra Nevada, our study goals are to:

blue arrrow Develop a regional classification and nomenclature

blue arrrow Compile a geo-referenced database with type localities and photos derived from field-mapping

blue arrrow Analyze geographic and climatic relations (modern and historic) of the mapped features

blue arrrow Formulate and test hypotheses of process and origins

blue arrrow Initiate reconnaissance-level monitoring of rock glaciers and RIF movement; meltwater, including flow, seasonal persistence, temperature, water age, and chemistry; lichen and plant cover and ages


We expect contributions from the ongoing work to basic science as well as regional water and resource management and alpine biodiversity conservation. The role of rock glaciers is of critical importance in arid mountain ranges as snowpacks decrease and ice glaciers retreat. Due to their lag with climate and the insulating role of rock mantling, rock glaciers may soon become the primary sources of persistent year round groundwater from high mountain regions, in particular the Sierra Nevada . We anticipate that elucidating the ubiquity, distribution, role of climate and hydrology in high mountains to have diverse applications under changing climates. Among the most important will be to improve input into hydrologic and especially groundwater models and future simulations, and to document the significance of rock glaciers as sources of water for alpine wetlands and biodiversity.

map of the Sierra Nevada Ecoregion

High Sierra Nevada, cismontane, but mostly east of the Sierran crest; extending from the Tahoe Basin to the southern extent of the alpine Sierra, south of Mt. Whitney. Emphasis is on the central Sierra north of Bishop to Bridgeport latitudes.


1)Millar, C.I. 1) Westfall, R.D. 1) Delany, D.D. 2) Dettinger, M.
3) Clow, D. 4) Lundquist, J. 5) Franklin, R. 6) Finkel, R.

1) USDA Forest Service, PSW Research Station
Sierra Nevada Research Center
800 Buchanan St., Albany, CA 94706 USA
ph: 510-559-6300

2) USGS, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA

3) USGS, Water Resources Division, Denver, CO

4) Dept of Civil Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

5) Lab of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

6) Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Livermore, CA

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Last Modified: Mar 28, 2013 02:54:35 PM