Ventifacts from the southern margin of the Vatnajökull ice cap,

southeast Iceland

ventifact [467 kb] ventifact [418 kb]

margin of ice cap [276 kb] flowers [493 kb]

Figs. 1-4: Examples of ventifacts found in a barren landscape (black volcanic ash and seasonal flowers) south of the south margin of the Vatnajökull, largest ice cap in Iceland. The site lies south of the centre of Vatnajökull, near the glacier Svinafellsjökull, east of the outwash plain of Skeidarasandur, under the highest peak in Iceland, Hvannadalshnjukur (Guttormsson, 2011, pp.49-51). The region is circa 64°N, 17°W. Above: examples of the sculpted rocks. Below: the landscape, and local wildflowers. Photographs taken on Sunday, 31 July 2022.

"Rock of the Month # 265, posted for July 2023" ---

What are Ventifacts (?)

Ventifacts are stones sculpted by the abrasive power of the wind, which carries particles of sand, snow and ice in suitable environments, notably in hot and cold deserts (e.g., Namibia and Antarctica, respectively). Ventifacts are commonly found on the cm and dm scales, but may be larger. Large (metre-scale) ventifacts may be formed in settings such as Aiyuittuq national park (north of Pangnirting, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada), shaped by katabatic winds that blow down-fjord in winter, up-fjord in summer (McKenna Neuman, 2022).

The study of the nature and evolution of terrestrial landforms is called geomorphology. This includes processes of physical erosion and chemical weathering (e.g., Birkeland and Larson, 1989; Tarbuck et al., 2015). Estimates of the erosion rates involved in the formation of these surfaces can be made by analysis of radionuclides generated by cosmic rays in the exposed surfaces (Biermann and Caffee, 2001). On occasion, ventifacts may be seen in museums (e.g., Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, 2017; Yifu Museum, Beijing, 2019). However, given that any material can be abraded by the wind, a natural form of sandblasting, samples may only be found in displays that focus on mechanisms of landscape evolution. Not all rounded, sculpted forms in a desert setting are necessarily formed by the action of wind (Meek and Dorn, 2000).

The chosen examples were amongst many lying upon the surface of a black sand (outwash of volcanic ash and lava) devoid of trees or shrubs: constant access to the wind favours ventifact generation, and in this environment the most abundant macroscopic life forms are lichens and transient low-lying plants, which offer little shelter from flying sand grains. The lithologies were not analysed in detail, but are evidently all of volcanic origin, with variable development of feldspar phenocrysts and vesicles (gas bubbles trapped in the magma as it cooled). The pale grey tints suggest relatively felsic (siliceous) compositions. Quite probably the ventifact material is rhyolite from the nearby, ice-shrouded volcanic edifice of Oraefajökull, which unleashed dangerous historical eruptions in 1362 and 1727 (Guttormsson, 2011, p.50).

Ventifacts are generally encountered in hot deserts such as the Mojave of California (Howard et al., 2001) and in cold deserts, such as the Canadian Arctic (Mackay and Burn, 2005). No exposed rocks are spared, not even exotics such as lunar meteorites in Oman (Korotev, 2012)! Ventifacts and the weathering rind known as desert varnish may also be encountered at archaeological sites (Waters, 1992). The typical waxy-lustred, medium brown smooth desert varnish is often only a fraction of one mm thick, but is also seen upon thousands of the "NWA" meteorite finds recovered from the Sahara, in the broad region referred to in the meteorite context as North West Africa.

The last Ice Age would have brought cold desert conditions to much of the northern hemisphere, generating ventifacts in regions of milder climate today, such as upstate New York (Mills and Wells, 1974; Van Diver, 1976). Ventifacts are generally noted on today's landscapes, but they may occasionally be recognized in ancient strata. An example is the Bunter (sandstone facies) of the Triassic in the British Isles. Characteristic angular, three-faced pebbles known as "dreikanter" may be seen in the Bunter, as in modern Namibia (Wells and Kirkaldy, 1966, pp.323-327). Based on this analogy, the angular pebbles presumably arose in sand dunes in Triassic deserts. Evidence of wind ablation extends back to Archean times. It has been suggested that some 5% of the pebbles in the gold-bearing Witwatersrand conglomerates in South Africa may be ventifacts (Minter, 1995), including some pebbles in the Carbon Leader unit (McCarthy, 1995).

ventifact [408 kb] ventifact [430 kb]

Figs. 5-6: Further examples of both smooth and larger, deeply scoured, pitted and fluted ventifacts.


Bierman,PR and Caffee,M (2001) Slow rates of rock surface erosion and sediment production across the Namib desert and escarpment, southern Africa. Amer.J.Sci. 301, 326-358.

Birkeland,PW and Larson,EE (1989) Putnam's Geology. Oxford University Press, New York, 5th edition, 646pp.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History (2017) Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Carnegie Museums, Pittsburgh, visit, 25 August.

Guttormsson,H (2011) Vatnajökull National Park - a guidebook. Friends of Vatnajökull, Reykjavik. 152pp.

Howard,A, Moore,J and Rice,J (conveners) (2001) Field Trip and Workshop on the Martian Highlands and Mojave Desert Analogs. Lunar & Planetary Institute Contribution 1101, 56pp.

Korotev,RL (2012) Lunar meteorites from Oman. Meteoritics & Planetary Science 47, 1365-1402.

Mackay,JR and Burn,CR (2005) A long-term field study (1951-2003) of ventifacts formed by katabatic winds at Paulatuk, western Arctic coast, Canada. Can.J.Earth Sci. 42, 1615-1635.

McCarthy,TS (1995) Current thinking on the Witwatersrand basin. University of the Witwatersrand, Economic Geology Research Unit, Johannesburg, lecture to GAC/SEG field party, 12 November.

McKenna Neuman,C (2022) How do they do it? Trent Environmental Wind Tunnel (TEWT) Edition II. Presentation 61 to Kawartha Geoscience Network (Kawartha and Region Earth Sciences, Engineering and Metallurgy Network, KREEM), Peterborough ON, delivered via Zoom, 01 March.

Meek,N and Dorn,R (2000) Is Mushroom Rock a ventifact? California Geology 53 no.6, 18-20, November.

Mills,HC and Wells,PD (1974) Ice-shove deformation and glacial stratigraphy of Port Washington, Long Island, New York. Bull.Geol.Soc.Amer. 85, 357-364.

Minter,WEL (1995) Gold deposits of the Witwatersrand basin. University of Cape Town, Department of Geological Sciences, Cape Town, lecture to GAC/SEG field party, 25 November.

Tarbuck,EJ, Lutgens,FK, Tsujita,CJ and Hicock,SR (2015) Earth: an Introduction to Physical Geology. Pearson Canada, Inc., 4th Canadian edition, 533pp.

Van Diver,BB (1976) Rocks and Routes of the North Country, New York. W.F. Humfrey Press Inc., Geneva, NY, 205pp.

Waters,MR (1992) Principles of Geoarchaeology: a North American Perspective. University of Arizona Press, 399pp.

Wells,AK and Kirkaldy,JF (1966) Outline of Historical Geology. Thomas Murby & Co., London, 6th edition, 533pp.

Yifu Museum (2019) The CUGB Museum, Yifu Building, China University of Geosciences - Beijing. CUGB Museum, Xueyuan Road, Haidian district, north Beijing, visit, 20 May.

Graham Wilson, posted 13-17 July 2023

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