A model for the development of a lobate alpine rock glacier in southwest Colorado, USA: implications for water on Mars



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Texas A&M University


Rock glaciers play a significant role in the alpine debris transport system. For practical and engineering considerations, identifying the internal structure and its relationship to surface characteristics is significant in terms of how a rock glacier settles during periods of melting, and the mode of deformation. A better understanding of these factors is important for engineers, engineering geologists and geomorphologists who must make prudent evaluations of rock glaciers as potential sites for human development and uses. It is equally important for evaluating potential stores for water on other planets such as Mars. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) shows that the internal structure of a lobate rock glacier located in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado consists of continuous to semi-continuous horizontal layers of ice-supersaturated sediments and coarse blocky rockslide debris which likely formed through catastrophic episodes of rockfall from the cirque headwall. Folds in the uppermost layers correspond to the surface expression of ridges and furrows, indicating that compressive stresses originating in the steep accumulation zone are transmitted downslope through the rock glacier. The rock glacier is a composite feature that formed by a process involving the development and overlap of discrete flow lobes that have overridden older glacial moraine and protalus rampart materials. The latter materials have been incorporated into the present flow structure of the rock glacier. The discovery of rock glacier-like features on Mars suggests the presence of flowing, or once-flowing ice-rock mixtures. These landforms, which include lobate debris aprons, concentric crater fill and lineated valley fill, hold significant promise as reservoirs of stored water ice that could be used as fuel sources for human exploration of Mars and provide a frozen record of the climatic history of the planet. To this end, the rock glacier in this study was used as a surrogate for similar Martian landforms. Liquid water, found to be abundant in this rock glacier, occurs within a network of interconnected channels that permeate throughout the landform. In terms of water storage within Martian analogs, consideration must include the possibility that some water ice may be stored in relatively pure form within lenses and vein networks that are supplied by seasonal frost accumulation and/or water influx from below.