Glacial Striations

Striations on columnar basalt in Devil's Postpile National Monument (CA)
As ancient glaciers flowed over basalt at Devil's Postpile National Monument (California), rock and sediment in the ice left scratches on the bedrock. These scratches, "striations," can be used to understand past ice flow. This rock has been scratched so much it shines with "glacier polish."

NPS Photo

As glaciers flow over land, they incorporate pieces of rock and sediment into the ice. These inclusions make the glacier sole (the bottom of the glacier) into a kind of coarse sandpaper that is capable of scratching bedrock. Over time, the glacier moves over rock and sediment, leaving striations or striae, on the rock surfaces that can reveal the direction that the glacier was flowing.

Glacier scientists often use striations to determine the direction that the glacier was flowing, and in places where the glacier flowed in different directions over time, they can tease out this complex flow history by looking at the layered striations. Thus, glacier striae are an important tool for people looking to reconstruct past glaciers.

As the glacier passes over a surface over longer and longer periods of time, it smoothes it much like sandpaper does. This smooth rock surface often has striations imprinted on it as well, and the entire thing is known as "glacier polish."
To learn more about glaciers, glacier features, and glacial landforms, see the Glaciers & Glacial Landforms Page.

Part of a series of articles titled Glacier Landforms.

Last updated: February 22, 2018