Roche moutonnée

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Roche moutonnée in Murmansk, Russia

In glaciology, a roche moutonnée (or sheepback) is a rock formation created by the passing of a glacier. The passage of glacier ice over underlying bedrock often results in asymmetric erosional forms as a result of abrasion on the "stoss" (upstream) side of the rock and plucking on the "lee" (downstream) side. These erosional features are seen on scales of less than a metre to several hundred metres.[1]:324–326


The 18th-century Alpine explorer Horace-Bénédict de Saussure coined the term roches moutonnées in 1786. He saw in these rocks a resemblance to the wigs that were fashionable amongst French gentry in his era and which were smoothed over with mutton fat (hence moutonnée) so as to keep the hair in place.[1] The French term is often incorrectly interpreted as meaning "sheep rock".[2]


Roche moutonnée eng text.png
An oblique view of a roches moutonnées surface at Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada, notice the contiguous, wavy rows of glaciated bedrock which resemble old-fashioned wigs as mentioned by Horace de Sassure
A somewhat blurry view of the same roches moutonnees surface at Great Slave Lake

The contrasting appearance of the erosional stoss and lee aspects is very defined on roches moutonnées; all the sides and edges have been smoothed and eroded in the direction that the glacier that once passed over it. It is often marked with glacial striations.

The rough and craggy down-ice (leeward) side is formed by plucking or quarrying, an erosional process initiated when ice melts slightly by pressure and seeps into cracks in the rock. When the water refreezes, the rock becomes attached to the glacier. But as the glacier continues its forward progress it subjects the stone to frost shattering, ripping pieces away from the rock formation. Studies show that the plucking of the lee side is a much more significant erosional process than the abrasion of the stoss side.[citation needed]

The side profile of a stoss and lee glaciated, bedrock knob (an erosional feature) is opposite to that of a drumlin (a depositional feature). In a drumlin, the steep side is facing the approaching glacier, rather than trailing it.

Even larger examples are known from Sweden where they are referred to as flyggbergs. Ice-smoothed bedrock bumps which lack the steep, plucked lee side faces are referred to as whalebacks or rock drumlins.[1]:326–327

Prest (1983) specifies a distinction between a glaciated "roches moutonnees surface" and a simple "stoss and lee" glacial feature. He says that the term "roches moutonnees surface" has been abused in the literature in which the term became interchangeable with the term "stoss and lee". He points out that a "roches moutonnees surface" is a continuous bedrock surface having a resemblance to the continuous, wavy or undulating rows of curls seen in French wigs at the time of Horace de Saussure while a simple stoss and lee feature refers only to a bedrock knob having a smooth stoss side and a plucked lee side appearance.[3]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Douglas Benn and David Evans, Glaciers & Glaciation, Arnold, London, 1st ed. 1998 ISBN 9780340584316
  2. Lutgens, Fred and Ed Tarbuck, Essentials of Geology, Prentice Hall, 2011, 11th ed. ISBN 978-0321714725
  3. Prest, V.K. (1983). Canada’s heritage of glacial features. Miscellaneous Report 28, Geologial Survgey of Canada, pp 26 - 27, fig. 24 a, b and c
  • Tarbuck, E.J.; F.K. Lutgens (2002). Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geography, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. p. 342. ISBN 0-13-092025-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Trenhaile, Alan (2007). Geomorphology: A Canadian Perspective. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. pp. 180–1. ISBN 0-19-542474-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Media related to Roches moutonnées at Wikimedia Commons