Determining Firn Compaction Rates Using Repeat-Track Radar Surveys in West Antarctica and Greenland
Abstract:Measurements of surface elevation change must be properly partitioned between thickness changes from firn versus ice processes to determine the actual mass change because of the density difference between firn and ice. While ice dynamics controls changes in the ice column, fluctuations in both the snow accumulation and firn compaction rates result in variations in the firn column thickness. Several recent studies using both ground-based and airborne radar have greatly improved our understanding of the spatiotemporal variations in the accumulation rate. On the other hand, because of the difficulty in measuring firn compaction rates, the number of measurements remains quite low and the coverage is very sparse.
Here, we present measurements of the firn compaction rate using the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets snow radar data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge repeat-track surveys. To measure firn compaction rates from the aerial survey we first measure the depths to various horizons in the firn column. In the subsequent survey, we measure the depths to the same firn horizons but must remove the additional thickness from accumulated snow. To account for the additional accumulation, we measure the thickness to the buried horizon that represents the surface from the first survey. The change in thickness between the initial surface and the radar horizons provides total compaction and when divided by the time interval between surveys, provides the compaction rate.
Specifically, we measure the spatiotemporal variations in the firn compaction rate in the Thwaites Glacier catchment area between 2009 and 2011. In addition, we present newly derived compaction rates from the dry-snow zone of Greenland. We also discuss the limitations of the method resulting from (1) the vertical resolution of the radar system, (2) colocation errors, (3) the dependence of radar wave speed on firn density, which varies in both space and time, and (4) measuring to a horizon of constant age rather than depth.