Melt-Affected Ice Cores for Polar Research in a Warming World

Melting polar and alpine ice sheets in response to global warming pose ecological and societal risks but will also hamper our ability to reconstruct past climate and atmospheric composition across the globe. Since polar ice caps are crucial environmental archives but highly sensitive to ongoing climate warming, the Arctic and Antarctic research community is increasingly faced with melt-affected ice cores, which are already common in alpine settings of the lower latitudes. Here, we review the characteristics and effects of near-surface melting on ice-core records, focusing on a polar readership and making recommendations for melt-prone study regions. This review first covers melt layer formation, identification and quantification of melt, and structural characteristics of melt features. Subsequently, it discusses effects of melting on records of chemical impurities, i.e. major ions, trace elements, black carbon, and organic species as well as stable water isotopic signatures, gas records, and applications of melt layers as environmental proxies. Melting occurs during positive surface energy balance events, which are shaped by global to local meteorological forcing, regional orography, glacier surface conditions and subsurface characteristics. Meltwater flow ranges from homogeneous wetting to spatially heterogeneous preferential flow paths and is determined by temperature, thermal conductivity and stratigraphy of the snowpack. Melt layers and lenses are the most common consequent features in ice cores and are usually recorded manually or using line scanning. Chemical ice-core proxy records of water-soluble species are generally less preserved than insoluble particles such as black carbon or mineral dust due to their strong elution behaviour during percolation. However, high solubility in ice as observed for ions like F−, Cl−, NH+4 or ultra-trace elements can counteract the high mobility of these species due to burial in the ice interior. Stable water isotope records like δ18O are often preserved but appear smoothed if significant amounts of meltwater are involved. Melt-affected ice cores are further faced with questions about the permeability of the firn column for gas movement, and gas concentrations can be increased through dissolution and in situ production. Noble gas ratios can be useful tools for identifying melt-affected profile sections in deep ice. Despite challenges for ice-core climate reconstruction based on chemical records, melt layers are a proxy of warm temperatures above freezing, which is most sensitive in the dry snow and percolation zone. Bringing together insights from snow physics, firn hydrology, and ice-core proxy research, we aim to foster a more comprehensive understanding of ice cores as climate and environmental archives, provide a reference on how to approach melt-affected records, and raise awareness of the limitations and potential of melt layers in ice cores.


Publication status:
Authors: Moser, Dorothea Elisabeth ORCIDORCID record for Dorothea Elisabeth Moser, Thomas, Elizabeth R. ORCIDORCID record for Elizabeth R. Thomas, Nehrbass-Ahles, Christoph, Eichler, Anja, Wolff, Eric

On this site: Dorothea Moser, Liz Thomas
11 June, 2024
The Cryosphere / 18
28pp / 2691-2718
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