Small-Scale Variations in Melt of the Debris-Covered Emmons Glacier, Mount Rainier, USA
Abstract:In a warming climate the vitality of mid-latitude glaciers is an important measure of local response to global climate change. However, debris-covered glaciers can respond to climate change in a nonlinear manner. Supraglacial debris alters the energy balance at the atmosphere-glacier interface compared with debris-free glaciers, and can result in both accelerated and reduced ablation through complex processes that occur on a variety of scales. Emmons Glacier, on the northeast slope of Mount Rainier (Washington, USA), offers an opportunity to study these processes in supraglacial debris that are otherwise difficult to study in situ (e.g. Himalayan glaciers). Emmons Glacier underwent a steady advance in the late 20th century despite a warming climate, in part due to increased surface debris cover.
Key energy balance variables were measured in August of 2013 and 2014 using a temporary weather station installed directly on the debris-covered terminus of Emmons Glacier. Ablation of debris-covered ice was monitored in situ with ablation stakes drilled into the debris-covered ice in a 3600 m2 grid, a size comparable to a single pixel in leading thermal remote-sensing platforms. Debris thickness at the study site ranged from 3-50 cm at the ablation stakes, and textures varied from sand and gravel to large boulders with open pore space. Daily ablation rates varied by a factor of 5 in this small area and were affected by debris thickness, texture, and moisture as well as local surface slope and aspect. On this scale, ablation rates correlated better with debris surface temperature than air temperature. Spatial gradients in ablation rate may strongly influence long-term melt rates through evolving surface topography and consequent redistribution of supraglacial debris, but cannot be resolved using thermal imagery from most current satellite platforms. A preliminary field experiment with a ground-based thermal infrared camera yielded temperature measurements with fine spatial resolution (<1m pixel) and compared well with direct temperature measurements of the debris surface. This result suggests that high resolution ground-based or low-altitude (UAV) thermal imagery could become a valuable tool for monitoring change in debris-covered glaciers.