An evaluation of the periglacial morphology in the high Drakensberg and associated environmental implications.
Although periglacial research in the high Drakensberg and Lesotho mountains has received growing interest amongst southern African geomorphologists, little detailed, quantitative information was available prior to this study. In an attempt to help overcome this deficit, a quantitative assessment on cryogenic landforms and processes operative in the high Drakensberg was undertaken. Morphological and sedimentological assessments of sorted patterned ground, non-sorted steps, thufur, blockstreams, stone-banked lobes, debris deposits and turf exfoliation landforms were undertaken. In addition, geomorphic process assessments in the field included the measurement of turf retreat at turf exfoliation sites, the determination of frost-heave mechanisms within wetlands and sediment mobilization along the Mashai Stream. Ground temperatures were recorded for thufur from 1993 to 1996. The environmental implications of some of the findings are discussed. Seasonal frost-induced sorted patterned ground emerges annually within a few weeks, demonstrating the effect of regular, diurnal freeze-thaw cycles during the winter months. It is found that the present climate is not conducive to maintaining or preserving miniature periglacial landforms below 3200m a.s.l. during the summer months. Large relict sorted circles, stone-banked lobes and blockstreams are the most conspicuous periglacial landforms in the high Drakensberg and are products of at least seasonally-frozen ground. It is suggested that debris deposits found within high Drakensberg cutbacks are possible indicators for marginal niche and cirque glaciation during the Late Pleistocene. It is demonstrated that in climatically marginal periglacial regions, the microtopographically controlled freezing processes may be of paramount importance in maintaining and modifying the cryogenic landforms that occur. Pronounced temperature differentials are found during the winter months, when thufur are frozen for several weeks and depressions remain predominantly unfrozen. It is suggested that such contemporary temperature differentials induce thermodynamic forces and ultimately ground heave at sites in the high Drakensberg. The pronounced seasonal weather patterns in the high Drakensberg have promoted a cycle of geomorphic process events that operate synergistically and initiate particular erosion landforms. However, cryogenic activity during the colder period is overwhelmed by water induced erosion processes during the summer months in the high Drakensberg. It is concluded that the high Drakensberg is currently a marginal periglacial region, but that periglacial conditions prevailed during both the Pleistocene and some Late Holocene Neoglacial events.