Geomorphological evolution of a debris‐covered glacier surface

Matthew J. Westoby, David R. Rounce, Thomas E. Shaw, Catriona L. Fyffe, Peter L. Moore, Rebecca L. Stewart, Benjamin W. Brock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)
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There exists a need to advance our understanding of debris‐covered glacier surfaces over relatively short timescales due to rapid, climatically induced areal expansion of debris cover at the global scale, and the impact debris has on mass balance. We applied unpiloted aerial vehicle structure‐from‐motion (UAV‐SfM) and digital elevation model (DEM) differencing with debris thickness and debris stability modelling to unravel the evolution of a 0.15 km2 region of the debris‐covered Miage Glacier, Italy, between June 2015 and July 2018. DEM differencing revealed widespread surface lowering (mean 4.1 ± 1.0 m a‐1; maximum 13.3 m a‐1). We combined elevation change data with local meteorological data and a sub‐debris melt model, and used these relationships to produce high resolution, spatially distributed maps of debris thickness. These maps were differenced to explore patterns and mechanisms of debris redistribution. Median debris thicknesses ranged from 0.12 to 0.17 m and were spatially variable. We observed localized debris thinning across ice cliff faces, except those which were decaying, where debris thickened. We observed pervasive debris thinning across larger, backwasting slopes, including those bordered by supraglacial streams, as well as ingestion of debris by a newly exposed englacial conduit. Debris stability mapping showed that 18.2–26.4% of the survey area was theoretically subject to debris remobilization. By linking changes in stability to changes in debris thickness, we observed that slopes that remain stable, stabilize, or remain unstable between periods almost exclusively show net debris thickening (mean 0.07 m a‐1) whilst those which become newly unstable exhibit both debris thinning and thickening. We observe a systematic downslope increase in the rate at which debris cover thickens which can be described as a function of the topographic position index and slope gradient. Our data provide quantifiable insights into mechanisms of debris remobilization on glacier surfaces over sub‐decadal timescales, and open avenues for future research to explore glacier‐scale spatiotemporal patterns of debris remobilization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3431-3448
Number of pages18
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number14
Early online date21 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2020


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