The Morphology of Polar Snow Surfaces: A Race Between Time and Snow Grain Properties

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Simon Vincent Pierre Filhol and Matthew Sturm, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States
Polar snow surfaces are rough, composed of multiple forms shaped by the interaction of snow grains and the wind. Based on the literature and new three-dimensional laser scanning data acquired in the Alaskan Arctic, we revisited the existing classifications of snow forms, and suggest a new genetic classification. Next we compared the morphology of aeolian snow features to analogous sand features, and then investigated the processes responsible for the differences. Although previous studies have suggested close similitudes between sand and snow features (barchan dunes, transverse dunes, etc.), we find significant differences, including:

1) snow features are smaller by a factor of a 100, 2) snow dunes are flatter, 3) snow dunes move four orders of magnitude faster than sand dunes, and 4) sand dunes last millennia, while snow dunes are by and large ephemeral. Coupling equations for dune age, propagation speed, snow flux, and wind speed, we find that the lower density of snow grains vs. sand (which should produce a higher flux) is balanced by sintering, which serves as a countdown timer, eventually bonding grains together, reducing material fluxes, and thereby limiting the growth and age of snow dunes.