Moving Mountains

“When it comes to mining for copper and gold, prospectors will move mountains to make it happen. As in, physically dig up the rock, extract the precious metals and move the debris elsewhere.

In the chilly high altitudes of the Andes Mountains, however, what may look like part of a mountain can in fact be a huge, frozen block of rock fragments and ice. When some of that ice melts in the spring, these so-called “rock glaciers” become a valuable source of water for local populations.

Rock Glacier in the Argentinian Andes, retrieved from UDaily

A scientific team including researchers from the University of Delaware trekked to the Andes in Argentina this month to learn more about rock glacier dynamics. They are estimating how much ice is locked inside rock glaciers where several new mines are being developed and how far the formations move each year.

The effort will aid the mining industry and government officials in determining the potential environmental impacts of disrupting the geological features.

“Mining companies are very concerned about altering or damaging any natural icy landscapes because there is so little water coming out of the high, dry Andes,” said Michael O’Neal, associate professor of geological sciences in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

O’Neal and two graduate students, Renato Kane and Erika Schreiber, spent two weeks collecting field data in the San Juan Province, situated just east of the Chilean border at altitudes between 10,000 and 15,000 feet. Kane’s thesis work will evaluate year-to-year movements of rock glaciers, which measure roughly one-third of a square mile, using a terrestrial laser scanner.

Rock glaciers form gradually as mountains erode and pieces of rock crumble downwards. Snow blankets the rocks and then melts when temperatures rise, causing water to seep in between crevices before refreezing. Like regular glaciers, rock glaciers move slowly under their own weight and seasonal melt. The scientists will compare data from year to year to track that movement.

“If they truly are active and flowing, we’ll see it when we measure their position,” O’Neal said.

If not, the rock glaciers may be inactive relics of a glacial advance thousands of years ago and no longer contribute to annual water flow.”

Read more: University of Delaware’s UDaily

 

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