How Are Fjords Formed?


A fjord forms where a glacier cut a gorge below sea level and then backed off. The U-shaped valley left behind fills with seawater, forming a narrow inlet with very steep sides. As the glacier moved forward, it pushed rock and earth debris ahead of it. The glacier's retreat deposits the debris at a point where the inlet meets the sea. Water at the mouth of the inlet is therefore shallow, whereas the deepest part of the fjord can be more than 1300 meters (close to one mile) deep. Most fjords formed during an ice age when sea level was much lower than it is today.

Fjord Formation

The glacial retreat comes at the end of an ice age when the climate warms and glacial ice melts. Sea levels rise as the result of additional water produced from melted ice. As the last ice age ended, glaciers around our world caused seawater to rise more than 100 meters (about 330 feet). U-shaped glacial valleys transformed into fjords when the seawater overflow caused valleys to fill with water.

Finding the Fjords

Fjords are mostly in the mountainous areas of the most northern points of middle latitudes. Fjords form well in mountain ranges where there are prevailing westerly winds coming off the ocean. These winds are lifted upward and over the mountains, resulting in an abundant snowfall which helps to enhance the glacial mass.

Coastal areas have the most pronounced fjords. When hunting down a fjord, check the west coast of Europe, North America from Alaska to Puget Sound, New Zealand’s west coast and the entire west coast of South America. There are a few other areas where smaller glaciers at lower altitudes have formed fjords.

Awesome Fjords

There are three extremely long fjords in the Northern Hemisphere. Two are in Norway and one is in Greenland. Scoresby Sund in Greenland is 220 miles long. Sognefjord in Norway is 126 miles in length. Hardangerfjord in Norway is 111 miles from end to end.

The three deepest fjords in the world are not confined to the Northern Hemisphere. One is in Antarctica, another in Norway and the third is in Chile. Shelton Inlet in Antarctica is 6,342 feet deep. Sognefjord in Norway is 4,291 feet in depth, with the surrounding mountainsides rising over half a mile. Messier Channel in Chile, South America, checks in at 4,226 feet deep.

The Pretenders

The differences between English and Scandinavian definitions made fjords of some bodies of water and stripped others of the designation. Examples of this are global and quite numerous. Some “fjords” are actually canyons or even channels.

Some supposed fjords are actually lakes that have separated from the ocean. Lake Te Anau in New Zealand has three inlets on the western side. These arms are North Fiord, Middle Fiord and South Fiord. They are fiords in name only. In reality, they are deep inlets in the lake. Some of these formations are designated “fjord lakes.”

Western Book Pond is a freshwater lake on the northeastern coast of Newfoundland. It is a lake cut off from the ocean. It is a good example of a fjord lake. However, it is not a fjord.

Prestigious Fjords

The New England coastline has many bays that are long, lookalike fjords. However, Somes Sound in Maine is the only glacial formation.

Travel to the opposite side of the continent and visit Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park Peninsula, where ocean storms, earthquakes, glaciers and fjords sculpted the landscape that appears to be anchored in the ice age. One area, Exit Glacier, is open to guests all year. The only road in the park is through Exit Glacier. However, when the snow falls in November, the road closes, and a wide range of winter activities and recreation take over.

Exit Glacier is a place where visitors can see the re-shaping of landscape by active glacier action. Visitors also view the plant life that takes over the rocky land upon the retreat of the glacier. The premier attraction of this park is the Harding Icefield, where 400 to 800 inches of snow accumulate each year. This snow will compact and increase the glacier mass over the next 30 to 50 years.

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