since 1961 BALTICA Volume 30 Number 2 December 2017: 63–73
Fine-grained quartz from cryoconite holes of the Russell Glacier, southwest Greenland –
a scanning electron microscopy study
Edyta Kalińska-Nartiša, Kristaps Lamsters, Jānis Karušs, Māris Krievāns, Agnis Rečs,
Kalińska-Nartiša, E., Lamsters, K., Karušs, J., Krievāns, M., Rečs, A., Meija, R., 2017. Fine-grained quartz from cryo-
conite holes of the Russell Glacier, southwest Greenland – a scanning electron microscopy study. Baltica, 2017, Vol. 30
(2), 63–73. Vilnius. ISSN 0067-3064.
Manuscript submitted 5 April 2017/ Accepted 20 November 2017 / Published online 11 December 2017
© Baltica 2017
Abstract The western ablation zone of the Greenland ice sheet is darker than the surrounding ice, because a high-
er amount of ne-grained particles, known as a cryoconite, occur. To date, biotic cryoconite components have
gained a lot of attention, in contrast with mineral components, which have been studied to a limited extent. In
this study, ne-grained quartz grains from the cryoconite holes of the Russell Glacier, southwest Greenland are,
therefore, examined. Authors use scanning electron microscope to elucidate shape, surface character and origin of
these mineral quartz particles. Triangular-faceted, sharp-edged grains dominate in most of the investigated sam-
ples, and originate from local sources, where grain-to-grain contact in the ice prevail. Grains with smooth corners
and edges result from chemical weathering in meltwater of alkaline pH, in which quartz solubility signicantly
increases. However, part of these rounded grains is due to mechanical abrasion by wind action. Postsedimentary
frost action is visible through grains entirely or partially covered by scaly-grained encrustation. Local processes
and sources are largely responsible for aforementioned grain outlines. However, few grains with bulbous silica
precipitation argue for a dry and warm climate, and distant, out-of-Greenland origin.
Keywords • glacial • periglacial • weathered • aeolian • quartz grain • SEM
Edyta Kalińska-Nartiša (firstname.lastname@example.org), SunGIS SIA, Pruuni, Rencēni Parish, Burtnieki region, LV-
4232, Latvia; University of Tartu, Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, Department of Geology, Ravila 14A, EE-
50411 Tartu, Estonia; Kristaps Lamsters (email@example.com), University of Latvia, Faculty of Geography
and Earth Sciences, Jelgavas street 1, LV-1004, Riga, Latvia; Jānis Karušs (firstname.lastname@example.org), University of Latvia,
Faculty of Geography and Earth Sciences, Jelgavas street 1, LV-1004, Riga, Latvia; Māris Krievāns (maris.krievans@
gmail.com), University of Latvia, Faculty of Geography and Earth Sciences, Jelgavas street 1, LV-1004, Riga, Latvia;
Agnis Rečs (email@example.com), University of Latvia, Faculty of Geography and Earth Sciences, Jelgavas street 1,
LV-1004, Riga, Latvia; Raimonds Meija (firstname.lastname@example.org), University of Latvia, Institute of Chemical Physics,
Jelgavas street 1, LV-1004, Riga, Latvia
Cryoconite holes occur upon glacier surfaces
worldwide and result from melting of biota and or-
ganic-mineral aggregates (Wharton et al. 1985) to a
depth of thermal equilibrium (McIntyre 1984). These
near-spherical forms contain dark coloured material
called cryoconite (Takeuchi et al. 2000), which was
rst described by Nordenskiöld (1872). This mate-
rial consist of (1) variable microbial community be-
ing a valuable biomarkers (Hodson et al. 2010), (2)
black carbon being a product of incomplete combus-
tion of fossils and biofuels (Cook et al. 2015), and
(3) ne-grained mineral material having a source ei-
ther in wind action or ice melting (Wientjes et al.
2011). Whereas biotic cryoconite components have
been studied in detail (Cook et al. 2015; Hodson et
al. 2010; Kaczmarek et al., 2016; Uetake et al. 2010),
studies about abiotic components are rather limited
and focus on, for instance, their physical and minera-
logical properties (Nagatsuka et al. 2014; Tedesco
et al. 2013). In this study, we analyse the shape and
character of surface of the ne-grained mineral par-
ticles, which gained, so far, a limited attention (see
Wientjes et al. 2011).
The ne-grained mineral component can be sim-
ply determined as a broken sand (Wright 2007),
and may be produced under numerous conditions
as both tropical (Pye 1983) and arid climate weath-
ering (Smith et al. 1987), aeolian abrasion (Bullard
et al. 2004; Whalley et al. 1987) or uvial processes
(Wright, Smith 1993). Traditionally, glacial grind-
ing combined with wind action produce a large silt
volume, and, therefore, these processes are favoured
as an explanation for, for example, loess formation
(Smalley 1995, 1990). However, glacial abrasion it-
self is also often responsible for a nal production of
silt-sized sediments (Langroudi et al. 2014). In the
cold and arid areas, particularly important are glacial
outwash oodplains that provide a silt-dominated de-
posit and dust source (Bullard, Austin 2011; Sugden
et al. 2009). For example, up to 0.7 m thick silt wind-
blown deposits occur at higher altitudes of the broad
valley oodplains in Greenland (Dijkmans, Törnqvist
1991; Willemse et al. 2003). Because wind is impor-
tant agent in sediment transport within extramarginal
zones to glaciers (Hobbs 1942), ne-grained sediment
may appear on the glacier surface (Marra et al. 2017),
subsequently absorbing sunlight, melting in the ice,
and nally producing a hole.
Natural silt is nearly always composed of quartz
(Kumar et al. 2006), except of volcanic areas, where
quartz is in a decient (Noda 2005). In this study,
quartz is abundant (Hodson et al. 2010), and thus we
have a closer look at properties of ne-grained quartz
material that originates from the cryoconite holes of
the Russell Glacier, south west Greenland (Figs. 1, 2).
This western ablation zone of the Greenland ice sheet
is darker than the surrounding ice (Fig. 2A-B), likely
due to a higher amount of ne-grained particles (Bøg-
gild et al. 2010). Especially during the last years, in-
creased snow impurity accelerates Greenland surface
melt (Dumont et al. 2014). Compared to other locali-
ties of west Greenland, the darker surface of Russell
Glacier contains a higher both biovolume and inor-
Fig. 1. Location of the study area and sampling points.
Fig. 2. A – a general view of study area with visible cryoconite on ice (darker zones), B – area with a lot of cryoconite
holes in foreground and concentrated cryoconite sediments in supraglacial lake. C – close-up view of cryoconite hole with
cryoconite granules at the bottom, D – group of cryoconite holes.
ganic quartz matter (Uetake et al. 2010). Quartz, in
turn, is an excellent tool, which records transporta-
tion and post-depositional processes in its shape and
on its surface (Vos et al. 2014). Combined all these
features, the aim of this study is to elucidate the ori-
gin and characteristics of quartz particles from the
cryoconite holes. We analyse the shapes, character of
surfaces and microtextures of mineral quartz particles
in scanning electron microscope (SEM).
Our study area is located in southwest Greenland,
where the Greenland ice sheet is drained by the Rus-
sell and the Isunnguata Sermia outlet glaciers (Fig.
1). The melting of the Russell glacier is a source
for proglacial streams owing into the 1–2 km wide
Sandugtdalen valley-sandur. The Sandugtdalen is
a major source area for wind-transported dust, which
forms small-scale aeolian features along the val-
ley and distal part of sandur plain (Engels, Helmens
2010), and occurs atop the ice margin as well. The
deposition of silt and sand sediments along sandur is
facilitated by periodical Jökulhlaups (Česnulevičius,
Šeirienė 2009; Russell 2007, 1989), with the lat-
est ones occurred in 2007 and 2008 (Russell et al.
Marginal moraines are also the sources for aeolian
silt, which even has deposited nearby in the small de-
pressions and terrace-like forms of the moraine ridges
themselves. As the airborne silt can remain in aerial
suspension for a long time and can be transported over
considerable distances (Clarhäll 2011), it is likely that
some ne-grained particles could have been blown
from distant localities in Northern Hemisphere. For
example, black carbon particles originating from the
forest res in North America were found in the Arctic
(Stohl et al. 2006).
The main bedrock constituent of the area near
the Russell glacier is the Archaean ortho-gneisses,
which construct the southern part of the Nagsugto-
qidian Orogen (Van Gool et al. 2002). Gneisses are
reworked in the Palaeoproterozoic era before 1.9-1.8
Ma (Van Gool et al. 2002) and later affected by glacial
erosion, postglacial faulting and deposition of glacial
and, in places, aeolian sediments. Thin cover of silty
aeolian deposits is common in the uphill areas, and as
suggested by Willemse et al. (2003), favourable con-
ditions for continuous aeolian deposition have been
prevailed at least since ca. 4,750 years BP with inux
rates between 0.075 and 0.60 kg/m2/year.
In the investigated area, dry sub-arctic climate
prevails with mean annual temperature of -5.1ºC
and mean annual precipitation of 173 mm (Cappelen
2012). The predominant wind direction is from east
and southeast (Van den Broeke, Gallée 1996) with
a mean speed at 2 m above ground level of 3.6 m/s
(years 1985–99; Cappelen et al. 2001) with the high-
est values > 10m/s in December and January (Bull-
ard, Austin 2011). However, Dijkmans and Törnqvist
(1991) reported that 25% of winds with this speed oc-
cur in May and June.
MATERIAL AND METHODS
Seven samples (K1B, K2B, K3A, K4A, K5A, K5B
and K6B) of cryoconite material from six sampling
sites were collected from the surface of Russell Gla-
cier during eld expedition in July, 29, 2016 (Figs. 1,
2). First sampling site (K1B) was set 3 km from glacier
margin at 552 m a.s.l. and each successive sampling
site was set 30 m lower (see Table 1 for details). Be-
cause we have not found any cryoconite holes close to
glacier margin, the last sampling site was set approxi-
mately 500 m from the glacier margin.
The altitude and coordinates of each sampling
point were determined by using a GPS Magellan Pro-
mark 3. All measurements were performed in UTM
coordinate system, zone 22N, whereas the elevations
were calculated using the EGM 2008 geoid model.
The K5A and K5B sampling sites were located at the
same elevation, but 10 metres apart to test whether
grain type distribution is similar or different.
At each sampling point pH (+/- 0.01) for each hole
were measured by using Multiparameter meter WTW
2FD460. Before the beginning of measurements, the
device was calibrated using calibration solutions with
pH values of 7 and 4.01.
In laboratory, samples were dried at room-temper-
ature, and further, sediment particles were randomly
placed onto a carbon double-sided sticky tape on top
of SEM holder. Because sediment itself was silty, and
quantity was small, no extra separation (i.e. by siev-
ing) was performed prior analyses with SEM. Alto-
gether 736 quartz grains (between 100 and 115 grains
per sample) were examined by the Hitachi FE-SEM
S-4800 at the Institute of Chemical Physics, Univer-
sity of Latvia. Grains were classied into one of the
ve groups following a recommendation of Woronko
(2007). These are: (1) A type = fresh grains, with
all sharp edges and corners; (2) B type = grains en-
tirely covered and transformed by chemical weather-
ing; (3) C type = grain with scaly-grained cover; (4)
D type = grains with bulbous cover, and (5) E type =
cracked grains with at least 30% of the original grain
affected. Information about grain type was, addition-
ally, supplemented by a closer look at the grain sur-
face and edges to nd out the possible microtextures
(Mahaney 2002; Vos et al. 2014).
Two groups of quartz grains signicantly contrib-
ute in all studied cryoconite holes. In the rst group,
fresh (A-type) grains occur at between 14% and 43%
(Fig. 3; Table 1). Fresh, different size of conchoidal
features associated with (sub-)parallel and curved
steps and graded marks occur on grains surface (Fig.
4A-E). In the second group, weathered (B-type) grains
vary between 28% and 50% (Fig. 3). Their corners
and edges are rounded by smooth etch surfaces (Fig.
4F-G) and caverns and holes are present on their sur-
face (Fig. 4H). However, in part of the grains, edges
are bulbous with no traces of chemically-induced fea-
tures (Fig. 4I-J). This is especially relevant to the K6B
sample, in which most grains carry bulbous edges.
Fig. 3. Spatial distribution of ne quartz grain types from
cryoconites of the Russell Glacier, southwest Greenland.
Table 1. Types of quartz grains of silty fraction in the ma-
terial of the cryoconite holes of the Russell Glacier along
with a sample altitude and pH value for each hole.
(m a.s.l.) pH Types of quartz grains [%]
A B CD E
K1B 552 9.27 24 50 8 0 17
K2B 522 9.17 34 42 12 0 12
K3A 494 9.49 40 41 61 12
K4A 465 9.13 37 41 16 0 7
K5A 433 8.10 27 28 25 2 17
K5B 433 8.00 43 31 6 6 14
K6B 423 7.20 14 48 16 0 14
Fig. 4. SEM micrographs of quartz specimens of the investigated cryoconites: (A-B) A-type fresh grains; (C) details of
conchoidal feature; (D) subparallel steps; (E) surface with graded arcs (arrows); (F-G) B-type weathered grains; (H) de-
tails of grain edge with holes and caverns (arrow); (I-J) mechanically abraded bulbous edges; (K) surface of C-type grain
with scaly-grained encrustation; (L-M) E-type cracked grains (arrows show cracked surfaces); (N) D-type grain with
bulbous encrustation; (O) details of bulbous encrustation.
Contribution of grains with scaly-grained encrus-
tation (C-type) varies between 6–25% (Fig. 3). Ei-
ther surface of these grains is intensively weathered
and entirely encrusted, or weathering occurs only in
depressions and at the bottom of the negative micro-
forms (Fig. 4K). Cracked (E-type) grains contribute
between 7–18% (Fig. 3, 4L-M). Grains with bulbous
precipitation on their surface (D-type) are either ab-
sent or rare (1–2%), except of the K5B, where 6% of
D-type grains occur (Fig. 3, 4N-O).
In theory, one or a combination of aeolian proc-
esses, land-sliding from valley walls and supra-/eng-
lacial entrainment may provide sediment onto gla-
cier surface (Lancaster 2002; Macdonell, Fitzsimons
2008; McIntyre 1984). On the ablation zone, as in
this study, sediment itself remains a ne powder of
dust particles, contrary to the valley glaciers, where
the material forming cryoconite holes is often sand or
pebbles (Bøggild et al. 2010). Previous studies reveal
contradictory opinions regarding the origin of ne-
grained particles on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Either
these particles originate from local wind-transported
sources and past-time englacial dust outcropping in
the ablation zone (Nagatsuka et al. 2016; Wientjes
et al. 2011) and/or long-travelled dust from dis-
tant deserts (Lupker et al. 2010; Serno et al. 2015;
Svensson et al. 2000). Others also suggest that only
ne-grained minerals originate from long-distanced
sources, whereas coarser – from eroded local bedrock
(Tepe, Bau 2015). Our study does only partially an-
swer the question whether or not ne-grained parti-
cles originate from distant sources. However, we pre-
liminary assume that the investigated quartz particles
from the cryoconite holes rather carry a transportation
signal originating from numerous but local sources.
Additionally, testing material from two cryoconite
holes at the same elevation, but located 10 metres
apart (K5A and K5B), reveals signicant difference
in grain type distribution, meaning that holes are in-
dependent one another. Through grain observation in
SEM, we detect ve types of grains that record differ-
ent environmental signals. We discuss these signals
in the following sections.
Results obtained from an observation of the ne-
grained quartz in the SEM, in which fresh (A-type)
and cracked (E-type) grains dominate, are consistent
with observations of Wientjes et al. (2011), who found
that cryoconite quartz in west Greenland reveals tri-
angular-faceted, sharp-edged outline (Fig. 4A-C).
Also Yallop et al. (2012) reported that angular min-
eral particles prevail in the cryoconite holes. Our re-
sults are also similar to other localities in the world.
For example, irregular mineral particles with sharp
edges in cryoconites from Svalbard were observed by
Edwards et al. (2010) and by Sullivan (1995), and in
the Tibetan Plateau by Dong et al. (2016a, 2016b).
Likewise, the ash particles taken from Icelandic holes
are dominantly characterized by blocky shape with
stepped features and clustered clasts (Dragosics et al.
2016). Moreover, angular fragments of quartz and
other mineral components were detected in the coars-
er-grained particles (> 62µm) in cryoconite deposits
of the Alps (Tomadin et al. 1996).
In newly produced grains, sharp edges, conchoidal
fractures, microsteps and fracture faces prevail (Jon-
czak et al. 2016), which may result from high-pres-
sure fracturing during glacial transport (Immonen et
al. 2014; Mahaney 2002; Vos et al. 2014) and local
origin combined with a recent deposition (Edwards
et al. 2010; Tomadin et al. 1996). Fresh-surfaced
grains also likely reect a severe climate conditions
(Sokołowski et al. 2009), which is visible, for ex-
ample, through the sample from the lowest altitude
(K6B), where the amount of the A-type grains is the
lowest, meaning that frost weathering is less intense
than in the inner part of the ice sheet. Our investigated
grains owe characteristic posed above, and, therefore,
greatly originate from local sources, where grain-to-
grain contact in the ice prevail as also concluded by
Wientjes et al. (2011). This statement may be addi-
tionally supported by a number of cracked (E-type)
grains, which result from crushing in glacial environ-
ment and frost weathering (Matsuoka 2001; Woronko
2016). Other studies, for example of rare earth ele-
ments, also show a local bedrock source in cryoconite
samples (Tepe, Bau 2015).
Not only sharp grains were observed in the investi-
gated cryoconite holes. Among some samples, nearly
50% of grains reveal abraded corners and edges and
smooth surface (Fig. 3). Shape of a quartz grain is sus-
ceptible to change either by chemical and mechanical
processes (Mazzullo 1986). During chemical solution
quartz crystal structure is easy etched on its corners
and edges (see details in Gautier et al. 2001 and ref-
erences therein). Fine-grained particles on a melting
ice surface are vulnerable to transport by meltwater
(Adhikary et al. 2000). Since geochemical properties
of meltwater are complex, and numerous solutes are
found in it (Sanna, Romeo 2016), quartz grains may
be affected by this transportation medium. Studies
show that quartz solubility signicantly increases in
alkaline conditions of pH 9.0 or higher (Dove, Rim-
stidt 1994), and at pH values lower than 3.5 (Brehm
et al. 2005). In our study, a general pH environment
measured in each cryoconite hole varies between 7.20
and 9.49 (Table 1), and is inuenced by the mineral
contents and active photosynthesis (Tranter et al.
2004). Comparing quartz grains in holes with water
of pH>9.0 and pH<9.0, our results indicate ca. 20%
more B-type (weathered) grains in holes with water
of a higher pH value (Fig. 5). This observation agrees
with a statement that the dissolution rate of quartz is
maximum above pH 9.0 (Brehm et al. 2005), but dis-
agrees with our results of the K6B sample. Although
the lowest value of pH (7.20) was measured in this
sample, almost half of investigated grains seem to
reveal rounded edges and corners. Alkaline condi-
tions do, certainly, not trigger grain rounding in this
case, and different agent is responsible for this (see
Mechanical processes seem to play a smaller role
in ne-grain rounding (Woronko 2007). However a
fairly rapid and an efcient rounding of ne-grained
particles under suspension conditions is considered
by some studies (Foreman et al. 2007; Mazzullo et al.
1992; Mazzullo 1986; Werner, Merino 1997). Strong
winds (see Study area) with a potential of mechanical
rounding are a common feature in the Kangerlussuaq
area, where wind erosion is an important geomor-
phic agent (Gillies et al. 2009) that removes discrete
patches of ne-grained soil and further exposing the
bedrock (Heindel et al. 2017). Along with our previ-
ous research, number of aeolian-origin grains of sand
fraction occur in the sediments close to the ice margin
(Kalińska-Nartiša et al. 2017). Certainly, this wind
agent should be considered, and possibly part of our
investigated grains were also mechanically abraded.
For example, grains of the K6B sample are coarser
and reveal edge rounding and bulbous edges on the
most concave parts of the grains (Fig. 4I, J). These
features are principally attributed to aeolian history
(Costa et al. 2013; Mahaney 2002; Mahaney et al.
2014), thus give evidence for wind transportation.
In periglacial environment, quartz grains with
scaly-grained cover and very ne mineral particle (C-
type according to Woronko (2007) occur, and may
be detectable, for example, in glacial streams, which
milk colour is due to particles of suspended silica
inside (Dietzel 2005). It has been observed that soil
solution at specic horizons induces the formation of
silicates (Dickinson, Grapes 1997), for example, in
young-glacial landscape (Jonczak et al. 2016). About
60% of the exposed land surface in the Northern
Hemisphere seasonally freezes and thaws (Zhang et
al. 1999) and polar regions particularly favour repeat-
ed freeze-thaw cycles. These cycles further damage of
grains (Woronko 2016) thus resulting in deposition of
silica is triggered and cause a huge effect on their ge-
ochemical and ecological availability (Dietzel 2005).
Our study shows a relatively limited number of the
C-type grains, however their occurrence is occasion-
ally as high as 25% (Fig. 3). Additionally, encrusta-
tion is more or less present at surfaces of practically
all investigated grains, for example in tiny microhol-
es and depressions. This clearly argues that a scaly-
grained cover results from likely post-sedimentary
processes induced by seasonal and daily frost action,
since cryoconite holes are frozen during winter and
during the night-time. Similar record of freeze-thaw
processes can be also found in several palaeoenviron-
ments (Kalińska-Nartiša et al. 2015, 2017; Woronko,
Allochthonous (?) grains
Satellite observations (Uno et al. 2011) along with
isotopic data (Svensson et al. 2000) provide strong
evidence that ne-grained long-distance particles con-
siderably contribute in mineral deposition in Green-
land. The potential source areas are located not only
at arid and tropical latitudes (the Sahara and Arabia),
but also at higher latitudes, where continental con-
ditions prevail, for example in the Inner Mongolian
deserts (Uno et al. 2009). In this study, a long-distance
signal may be represented by few grains with bulbous
incrustation (D-type; Fig. 4O). These rarely observed
grains have allochthonous origin, since bulbous silica
precipitation is strictly correlated with warm and dry
climate conditions, where mineral surface is, at rst,
etched by highly concentrated, strongly alkaline solu-
tions, followed by silica precipitation in dry periods
(Krinsley, McCoy 1978). We can, therefore, assume
that these grains originate from distant deserts.
Fig. 5. Biplot of the pH values and percentage occurrence
of the B-type weathered quartz grains.
This study contributes to characterise cryoconite
ne-grained quartz from the cryoconite holes of the
Russell Glacier, southwest Greenland. By analysing
the grain shapes and character of its surface, we deci-
pher sedimentary signals originating from numerous
Irregular, sharp-edged quartz grains prevail in
the investigated cryoconites and result from grain-
to-grain contact in the ice during glacial transport.
Similar sharp grains have been observed in cryoco-
nites elsewhere. Grain rounding is likely due to both
chemical and mechanical processes. Under alkaline
conditions of pH 9.0 or higher quartz solubility sig-
nicantly increases, thus rounding grain corners and
edges. However, rounded grains are equally present
in holes with a lower pH value. These grains reveal
abrading by aeolian action, because their edges are
bulbous and not affected by etching-induced features.
Additionally, part of investigated grains records a
postsedimentary frost action, seen as a scaly-grained
incrustation occurring on a whole grain surface or at
the bottom of negative microforms. Aforementioned
grains come from numerous, but local sources. In
contrast, few grains with bulbous incrustation are
present and they argue for a dry and warm climate
origin. These grains may represent long-travelled
particles from distant deserts.
Prof. Albertas Bitinas (Klaipėda) and Prof. Petras
Šinkūnas (Vilnius) are thanked for valuable com-
ments, which improve the nal version of the manu-
script. Research was supported by the SIA SunGIS (E.
Kalińska-Nartiša), by the ERAF project No. 22.214.171.124/
VIAA/1/16/118 (K. Lamsters) and by University of
Latvia project “Climate change and sustainable use of
natural resources” (No. AAP2016/B041).We thank
Reinis Pāvils for eld assistance.
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