Articles | Volume 4, issue 3
Research article
26 Jul 2016
Research article |  | 26 Jul 2016

Morphological properties of tunnel valleys of the southern sector of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and implications for their formation

Stephen J. Livingstone and Chris D. Clark

Abstract. Tunnel valleys have been widely reported on the bed of former ice sheets and are considered an important expression of subglacial meltwater drainage. Although known to have been cut by erosive meltwater flow, the water source and development of channels has been widely debated; ranging between outburst flood events through to gradually occurring channel propagation. We have mapped and analysed the spatial pattern and morphometry of tunnel valleys and associated glacial landforms along the southern sector of the former Laurentide Ice Sheet from high-resolution digital elevation models. Around 2000 tunnel valleys have been mapped, revealing an organised pattern of sub-parallel, semi-regularly spaced valleys that form in distinctive clusters. The tunnel valleys are typically  < 20 km long, and 0.5–3 km wide, although their width varies considerably down-valley. They preferentially terminate at moraines, which suggests that formation is time dependent; while we also observe some tunnel valleys that have grown headwards out of hill-hole pairs. Analysis of cross-cutting relationships between tunnel valleys, moraines and outwash fans permits reconstruction of channel development in relation to the retreating ice margin. This palaeo-drainage reconstruction demonstrates incremental growth of most valleys, with some used repeatedly or for long periods, during deglaciation, while others were abandoned shortly after their formation. Our data and interpretation support gradual (rather than a single-event) formation of most tunnel valleys with secondary contributions from flood drainage of subglacial and or supraglacially stored water down individual tunnel valleys. The distribution and morphology of tunnel valleys is shown to be sensitive to regional factors such as basal thermal regime, ice and bed topography, timing and climate.

Short summary
We mapped and analysed nearly 2000 large valleys that were formed by meltwater flowing under a former ice sheet. Our results demonstrate that valleys tend to cluster together in distinctive networks. The valleys themselves are typically < 20 km long, and 0.5–3 km wide, and their morphology is strongly influenced by local bed conditions (e.g. topography) and hydrology. We suggest valleys formed gradually, with secondary contributions from flood drainage of water stored on top of or under the ice.