Supraglacial debris thickness variability: impact on ablation and relation to terrain properties

Shallow ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys are used to characterize the small-scale spatial variability of supraglacial debris thickness on a Himalayan glacier. Debris thickness varies widely over short spatial scales. Comparison across sites and glaciers suggests that the skewness and kurtosis of the debris thickness frequency distribution decrease with increasing mean debris thickness, and we hypothesize that this is related to the degree of gravitational reworking the debris cover has undergone and is therefore a proxy for the maturity of surface debris covers. In the cases tested here, using a single mean debris thickness value instead of accounting for the observed small-scale debris thickness variability underestimates modelled midsummer sub-debris ablation rates by 11 %–30 %. While no simple relationship is found between measured debris thickness and morphometric terrain parameters, analysis of the GPR data in conjunction with high-resolution terrain models provides some insight into the processes of debris gravitational reworking. Periodic sliding failure of the debris, rather than progressive mass diffusion, appears to be the main process redistributing supraglacial debris. The incidence of sliding is controlled by slope, aspect, upstream catchment area and debris thickness via their impacts on predisposition to slope failure and meltwater availability at the debris–ice interface. Slope stability modelling suggests that the percentage of the debris-covered glacier surface area subject to debris instability can be considerable at glacier scale, indicating that up to 32 % of the debris-covered area is susceptible to developing ablation hotspots associated with patches of thinner debris.


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Authors: Nicholson, Lindsey I., McCarthy, Michael ORCIDORCID record for Michael McCarthy, Pritchard, Hamish D. ORCIDORCID record for Hamish D. Pritchard, Willis, Ian

On this site: Michael McCarthy, Hamish Pritchard, Michael McCarthy
29 November, 2018
The Cryosphere / 12
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