Cryospheric Sciences


The hidden part of the cryosphere – Ice in caves

The hidden part of the cryosphere – Ice in caves

The cryosphere can be found in various places in many forms and shapes… in the atmosphere, on land and sea. A lesser known part of the cryosphere is hidden deep in the dark, in the cold-karstic areas of the planet: Ice caves! The ongoing climate change affecting ice all over the world is now rapidly melting these hidden ice masses as well. We therefore need to hurry up and try to collect as much information as we can before all will melt away…

The big melting

The ice masses around the globe, in ice sheets, sea ice, and mountain glaciers, have been melting away in past decades (see this previous post). The reduction of the cryosphere, both in terms of area and mass, has particularly been visible in the European Alps over the last 30 years. On the one hand, large and small Alpine glaciers decline, fragment and even disappear, and this trend has accelerated since the mid 1980s. Mountain glaciers are therefore considered to be sensitive indicators for climate variability. On the other hand, the warming climate is also acting on permafrost degradation, mostly affecting the stability of rock-slopes and cliffs.

What makes the international scientific community worry at the moment is how fast this abrupt glacial reduction is occurring globally. However, not all the natural environments respond in the same way to sudden changes in the climate system! Fortunately for us scientists, there are physical environments and ecological niches more resilient to external perturbations. This aspect has sometimes allowed the preservation of environments and information in the Earth’s climatic history that would have been otherwise destroyed.

Caves are resilient

Among the most resilient natural environments there are caves, “protected” by the rocky mass within which they were formed. In the mountains, high-altitude karst cavities can contain huge deposits of ice representing a lesser known part of the cryosphere. Speleologists face such ice in caves both as a joy and a damnation: fascinating by their beautiful shapes and morphologies, they also see it as an unwieldy presence that prevents explorations of still unknown voids in the alpine karstic systems.

Fig. 2: An ice deposit in a cave of the southeastern Alps [Credit: Renato R. Colucci].


But ice in caves is not just something beautiful (but isn’t it? Look at Fig. 2!). It rather represents a precious natural archive, sometimes with high temporal resolution, able to tell the climate history of large part of the Holocene (the last 11700 years of the Earth’s history). The permanent ice deposits, i.e. the ice staying longer than just a winter season, often defined in a colorful way as “fossil ice” by speleologists, is what counts the most. As it typically gets older than 2 years, which is one threshold for the general definition of permafrost, this phenomenon is part of the mountain permafrost… right or wrong, ice in caves is ground ice!

Fig. 3: Huge entrance of a cave opening in the Dachstein limestones of the Canin-Kanin massif, southeastern Alps [Credit: Renato R. Colucci].


Generally in the Alps such ice deposits lie in caves having their opening at altitudes above 1,000 m (Fig. 3), but locally even lower. The formation of these unique environments depends on a combination of geomorphological and climatic characteristics, which allow for accumulation and preservation of ice also in places where this would be very unlikely.

Now, although the caves are resilient environments, ice melting due to climate change is rapidly increasing there as well. This is why it is important to save as much information as possible from the remaining ice, before it is definitely lost!

The C3 project – Cave’s Cryosphere and Climate

The C3-Cave’s Cryosphere and Climate project is under the scientific guidance of the National Research Council (CNR) of Italy, and precisely the climate and paleoclimate research group of ISMAR Trieste. It aims to monitor and study ice deposits in caves. Such ice deposits store several information related to the paleoclimate, the biology, the chemistry and ecology of these environments.

Fig. 4: Drilling ice cores with the aim to extract the CCC layer from this ice body in a cave of the southeastern Alps [Credit: Arianna Peron].

The project started in 2016, following the discovery of a coarse cryogenic calcite deposit (CCCcoarse) in an ice layer (in-situ) in a cave of the Canin-Kanin massif, in the Julian Alps, located between Italy and Slovenia. This finding, representing the first evidence of CCC in the southern Alps, provides an important opportunity to understand the processes associated to the formation of these particular calcite crystals (Fig. 4). Previously, the CCC (Fig. 5) was only found on the floor in caves where ice had already melted away. What makes it interesting is the fact that it is possible to date these crystals using the isotopic ratio of some trace elements in radioactive materials, typically Uran and Thorium.

Fig. 5: Millimetric crystals of coarse cryogenic calcite found in-situ in the southern Alps [Credit: Renato R. Colucci].

The strongest financial and logistic support to the project is given by the Alpine Society of the Julian Alps through its speleological group, the E. Boegan Cave Commission. In addition to the CNR and other Italian institutions such as the University of Trieste, University of Bologna, Insubria University in Varese, Milano Bicocca University and the Natural Park of the Julian Prealps, the project involves research institutes and universities from Germany (Institute of Physics of Heidelberg University), Switzerland (Paul Scherrer Institut; Swiss Institute for Speleology and Karst Studies), Austria (Innsbruck University; Palynology and Archaeobotany Research Group), and Slovenia (Geological survey of Slovenia).

Many activities and several results already unveiled few of the secrets hidden in such environments: the realization of the first thermo-fluido-dynamic model in an ice cave, the development of innovative techniques for studying the mass balance of the ice, the study of the thermal characteristics of the rock and therefore of the permafrost and the active layer, the development of innovative and multidisciplinary methods of ice dating.

But there is little time to do all, and we must exploit it to the fullest!

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard

Renato R. Colucci works in the climate and paleoclimate research group of ISMAR-CNR, Department of Earth System Sciences and Environmental Technology. He is also adjunct Professor of glaciology at the University of Trieste (Italy). During his PhD he honed his skills in glacial and periglacial geomorphology at UNIS (University Center in Svalbard). His research centers around the interactions between cryosphere (glaciers, permafrost, ice caves) and the climate, spanning from the end of the Last Glacial Maximum to the present days.

Katabatic winds – A load of hot (or cold) air?

Katabatic winds – A load of hot (or cold) air?

It might seem obvious that a warming world will lead to a reduction in glacial ice cover, but predicting the response of glaciers to climatic change is no simple task (even within the short term). One way to approach this problem is to come up with relationships which describe how glaciers interact with the world around them, for example, how the ice interacts with the air above it. Our post today delves into the world of ice-air interaction and describes some of the problems encountered by those who are investigating it, in particular the problem of modelling katabatic winds! Not sure what we are talking about…then read on to find out more! 

What are katabatic winds?

Anyone who has stood on, or in front of a glacier on a clear, sunny day has no doubt felt the bitter chill of a katabatic wind, forcing them to don a warm jacket and lose their chance at that lovely “glacier tan”. Katabatic winds (derived from the Greek word katabasis, meaning ‘downhill’) develop over snow and ice surfaces because the 0°C ice surface cools the air just above it. This cold, dense air then flows downhill under the force of gravity (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). This is not recent news and such wind chill has no doubt punished glaciologists and explorers for the last century or more –  Mawson’s Description of the 1911-1914 Australian Antarctica Expedition is aptly named “The Home of the Blizzard“. However, despite being well known, this phenomenon still causes much uncertainty when it comes to modelling the melting of glacier ice surfaces around the world.

Soon gusts swept the tops of the rocky ridges, gradually descending to throw up the snow at a lower level. Then a volley raked the Hut, and within a few minutes we were once more enveloped in a sea of drifting snow, and the wind blew stronger than ever. – Mawson, 1915, The Home of the Blizzard

Figure 2: The view from the upper reaches of Tsanteleina Glacier in the western Italian Alps (Val d’Rhemes, Aosta). Katabatic winds generally flow in a down-glacier direction – here, from right to left [Credit: T Shaw].

Challenges for modelling

Air temperature is really important in determining how much a glacier melts and we need to know as much about it as possible to provide accurate predictions now and into the future. This is particularly relevant because the warmer it gets, the more energy is available to melt ice and seasonal snow. Unfortunately though, we don’t have an infinite supply of meteorological observations (e.g. air temperature, wind speed etc) at many locations we are interested in. As a result, we have to make simple assumptions about what the weather is doing at a remote, far away glacier. One such simple assumption is based upon the fact that air temperature typically decreases with increasing elevation, and so if we know the elevation of a location we are interested in, we can assume a ‘likely’ temperature. The rate of change in temperature with elevation is known as a ‘lapse rate’.

Air temperature is really important in determining how much a glacier melts…the warmer it gets, the more energy is available to melt ice and seasonal snow.

When predicting glacier melt, it is common practice to use a lapse rate which stays constant in time and space. This is convenient as we often don’t know the actual lapse rate at a given location, but this often ignores things happening at the surface of the Earth. An important example of this is when we have katabatic winds over glaciers!

When conditions are warm, and skies are clear, the cooling of the air above the ice surface, means that the application of a lapse rate is fairly useless, or close to it [Greuell and Böhm, 1998]! That is because the cooling from the surface continues as air flows down the glacier, typically creating colder temperatures at lower elevations, the opposite of the typical lapse rate assumption that models will apply.

‘Bow-shaped’ temperature vs. elevation relationships

To complicate matters for people trying to model the air temperature over glaciers, the effect of surface cooling is not just dependent on the amount of time an air parcel is in contact with the ice surface but also the characteristics of the ice surface it has been in contact with. In fact, after cooling on their descent down-glacier, air parcels have been documented to warm again, leaving interesting slightly “bow-shaped” curves to the temperature-elevation relationship. This effect has been found for the Swiss Haut Glacier d’Arolla and the Italian Tsanteleina Glacier (Fig. 3c,d). A new model approach to tackling this bow-shaped problem has been presented by recent research [Ayala et al., 2015] and offers a means of accounting for katabatic winds in glacier models. Nevertheless, more data and more work are still needed to generalise these models [Shaw et al., in review].

Figure 3: Relationship between elevation and air temperature on three different glaciers in the western Alps. Miage (Italy), Tsanteleina (Italy) and Arolla (Switzerland). Glaciers are represented using the mean of all data available (green), the top 10% of off-glacier temperatures (P90 – red) and the bottom 10% of off-glacier temperatures (P10 – blue), plus one standard deviation. The debris-covered Miage Glacier does not demonstrate a classic katabatic flow regime and therefore temperature corresponds well to elevation even under warm conditions [Credit: T Shaw, unpublished].

after cooling on their descent down-glacier, air parcels have been documented to warm again, leaving interesting slightly “bow-shaped” curves to the temperature-elevation relationship.

Air temperatures across debris-covered glaciers

As you may have read in our previous post on the topic, debris-covered glaciers behave in a different way to those with a clean ice surface. Detailed observations of air temperature across a debris-covered glacier show that the glacier responds to the heating of surface debris in the sunlight and a consequent warming of the lower atmosphere [Shaw et al., 2016]. Because of this, air temperature conforms very strongly to the elevation dependency that is assumed when using a lapse rate. Although very local variations of air temperature on other debris-covered glaciers cannot be well estimated by a lapse rate [Steiner and Pellicciotti, 2016], the insulating effect of thick debris cover means that the current approach to using simple lapse rates for estimating air temperature over debris-covered glaciers could be suitable.

Nevertheless, challenges for accurately representing air temperature above glaciers without debris cover remain. The fact that globally averaged temperatures are expected to rise over the current century (areas at high latitudes have shown a stronger warming trend) [Collins et al, 2013], the applicability of using lapse rates could further diminish. Recent patterns of warmer-than-average temperatures also suggest a difficulty of accurately estimating on-glacier temperatures in the short-term. For example, for the period of May 2015 – August 2016, every month beat the previously held record for warmest globally average temperature (GISTEMP). Imagine the bow-shaped problem to that!

Edited by Matt Westoby and Emma Smith

Thomas Shaw is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Northumbria University, UK. His research is focused on the spatial and temporal variance in near-surface air temperature across debris-covered and debris-free glaciers in the western Italian Alps. As well as conducting research in the Alps, he is also very interested in glaciers and their processes on Svalbard (Norwegian Arctic) and has spent plenty of time studying above, or within (!), ice at high latitudes. Contact e-mail: