Dynamics of the cold surface layer of polythermal Storglaciären, Sweden

University dissertation from Stockholm : Institutionen för naturgeografi och kvartärgeologi

Abstract: Polythermal glaciers, i.e. glaciers with a combination of ice at and below the freezing point, are widespread in arctic and subarctic environments. The polythermal structure has major implications for glacier hydrology, ice flow and glacial erosion. However, the interplay of factors governing its spatial and temporal variations such as net mass balance, ice advection and water content in the ice is poorly investigated and as yet not fully understood. This study deals with a thorough investigation of the polythermal regime on Storglaciären, northern Sweden, a small valley glacier with a cold surface layer in the ablation area. Extensive field work was performed including mapping of the cold surface layer using ground-penetrating radar, ice temperature measurements, mass balance and ice velocity measurements. Analyses of these data combined with numerical modelling were used specifically to investigate the spatial and temporal variability of the cold surface layer, the spatial distribution of the water content just below the cold surface layer transition, the effect of radar frequency on the detection of the surface layer, and the sensitivity of the cold surface layer to changes in forcing.A comparison between direct temperature measurements in boreholes and ground-penetrating surveys shows that the radar-inferred cold-temperate transition depth is within ±1 m from the melting point of ice at frequencies above ~300 MHz. At frequencies below ~155 MHz, the accuracy degrades because of reduced scattering efficiency that occurs when the scatterers become much smaller compared to the wavelength. The mapped spatial pattern of the englacial cold-temperate transition boundary is complex. This pattern reflects the observed spatial variation in net loss of ice at the surface by ablation and vertical advection of ice, which is suggested to provide the predominant forcing of the cold surface layer thickness pattern. This is further supported by thermomechanical modeling of the cold surface layer, which indicates high sensitivity of the cold surface layer thickness to changes in vertical advection rates.The water content is the least investigated quantity that is relevant for the thermal regime of glaciers, but also the most difficult to assess. Spatial variability of absolute water content in the temperate ice immediately below the cold surface layer on Storglaciären was determined by combining relative estimates of water content from ground-penetrating radar data with absolute determination from temperature measurements and the thermal boundary condition at the freezing front. These measurements indicate large-scale spatial variability in the water content, which seems to arise from variations in entrapment of water at the firn-ice transition. However, this variability cannot alone explain the spatial pattern in the thermal regime on Storglaciären.Repeated surveys of the cold surface layer show a 22% average thinning of the cold surface layer on Storglaciären between 1989 and 2001. Transient thermomechanical modeling results suggest that the cold surface layer adapts to new equilibrium conditions in only a few decades after a perturbation in the forcing is introduced. An increased winter air temperature since mid-1980s seems to be the cause of the observed thinning of the cold surface layer. Over the last decades, mass balance measurements indicate that the glacier has been close to a steady state. The quasi-steady state situation is also reflected in the vertical advection, which shows no significant changes during the last decades. Increased winter temperatures at the ice surface would result in a slow-down of the formation of cold ice at the base of the cold surface layer and lead to a larger imbalance between net loss of ice at the surface and freezing of temperate ice at the cold-temperate transition.

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