Aspect controls the survival of ice cliffs on debris-covered glaciers

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Abstract

Supraglacial ice cliffs exist on debris-covered glaciers worldwide, but despite their importance as melt hot spots, their life cycle is little understood. Early field observations had advanced a hypothesis of survival of north-facing and disappearance of south-facing cliffs, which is central for predicting the contribution of cliffs to total glacier mass losses. Their role as windows of energy transfer suggests they may explain the anomalously high mass losses of debris-covered glaciers in High Mountain Asia (HMA) despite the insulating debris, currently at the center of a debated controversy. We use a 3D model of cliff evolution coupled to very high-resolution topographic data to demonstrate that ice cliffs facing south (in the Northern Hemisphere) disappear within a few months due to enhanced solar radiation receipts and that aspect is the key control on cliffs evolution. We reproduce continuous flattening of south-facing cliffs, a result of their vertical gradient of incoming solar radiation and sky view factor. Our results establish that only north-facing cliffs are recurrent features and thus stable contributors to the melting of debris-covered glaciers. Satellite observations and mass balance modeling confirms that few south-facing cliffs of small size exist on the glaciers of Langtang, and their contribution to the glacier volume losses is very small (∼1%). This has major implications for the mass balance of HMA debris-covered glaciers as it provides the basis for new parameterizations of cliff evolution and distribution to constrain volume losses in a region where glaciers are highly relevant as water sources for millions of people.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4369-4374
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Volume115
Issue number17
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2018

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