Cryospheric Sciences

digital elevation models

Image of the Week – Far-reaching implications of Everest’s thinning glaciers

Fig. 1: Surface lowering on the debris-covered Khumbu Glacier, Nepal derived from differencing two digital elevation models. (a) The debris-covered surface looking down-glacier. (b-d) Surface elevation change 1984−2015. [Credit: Scott Watson and Owen King]

From 1984 to 2015, approximately 71,000 Olympic size swimming pools worth of water were released from the melting Khumbu Glacier in Nepal, which is home to Everest Basecamp. Find out how Himalayan glaciers are changing and the implications for downstream communities in this Image of the Week.

Himalayan glaciers supply freshwater

Himalayan glaciers supply meltwater for ~800 million people, including for agricultural, domestic, and hydropower use (Pritchard, 2017). They also alleviate seasonal variations in water supply by providing meltwater during the dry season. This freshwater resource is rapidly depleting as glaciers thin and glacial lakes begin to form (Bolch et al., 2008; Watson et al., 2016; King et al., 2017). Additionally, outburst floods from these lakes (see those previous posts on the topic) threaten downstream impacts for communities and infrastructure (Rounce et al., 2016).

Debris-covered glaciers thin, rather than retreat

Erosion in the rugged mountain topography leads to high quantities of rocky debris accumulating on the glacier surface, which changes the glacial response to climatic warming. The debris-layer (which can be several metres thick at the lower terminus) insulates the ice beneath, leading to highest melt rates up-glacier of the terminus. Therefore these debris-covered glacier thin, rather than retreat up-valley.

This thinning is actually a complex process of sub-debris melt, and mass loss associated with supraglacial ponds and ice cliffs, which form pits on the glacier surface and are ‘hot-spots’ of mass loss. Since the highest rates of surface lowering are up-glacier from the terminus, the surface slope of the glacier reduces and meltwater increasingly ponds on the surface, which can ultimately form a large glacial lake.

Khumbu Glacier

Fig 2 : Khumbu Icefall viewed from Kala Patthar. [Credit: Scott Watson]

The image of this week (Fig 1) shows surface elevation change on Khumbu Glacier, which flows down from Everest and is home to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Parts of the glacier surface have thinned by up to 80 m 1984−2015 and over 197,600,000 m³ of ice melted over study period, which is approximately 71,000 Olympic size swimming pools worth of water! The thinning is clearly visible in the vertical offset between the contemporary glacier surface and the Little Ice Age moraines (a) and is highest in the mid-section of the glacier (b).

Mountaineers ascending Mount Everest climb the Khumbu icefall (Fig 2) and camp on the glacier surface. Additionally, popular trekking routes also run alongside and across the glacier, which are used by thousands of tourists every year. The accessibility of both these mountaineering and trekking routes is changing in response to glacier mass loss.

Stagnating glaciers are unhealthy glaciers

Accumulation of snowfall in the highest reaches of the glacier would typically compress to form new ice and replenish mass loss on the lower glacier as the glacier flows downstream. However, trends of reduced precipitation (Salerno et al., 2015) and decreasing glacier surface slopes promote a reduction in glacier velocity. Figure 3 shows glaciers stagnating in their lower reaches, where water is also visibly ponding on the glacier surface. For Khumbu and Ngozumpa glaciers, this contributes to the development of large glacial lakes. If these lakes continue to grow, once fully established they can rapidly increase glacier mass loss as a calving front develops (e.g. at Imja Lake).

Fig. 3: Surface velocity of glaciers in the Everest region derived from feature tracking on ASTER satellite imagery. [Credit: Scott Watson]

Edited by Sophie Berger

References/further reading

  • Bolch, T Buchroithner, MF Peters, J Baessler, M and Bajracharya, S. 2008. Identification of glacier motion and potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Mt. Everest region/Nepal using spaceborne imagery. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 8: 1329-1340. 10.5194/nhess-8-1329-2008
  • King, O Quincey, DJ Carrivick, JL and Rowan, AV. 2017. Spatial variability in mass loss of glaciers in the Everest region, central Himalayas, between 2000 and 2015. The Cryosphere 11: 407-426. 10.5194/tc-11-407-2017
  • Pritchard, HD. 2017. Asia’s glaciers are a regionally important buffer against drought. Nature 545: 169-174. 10.1038/nature22062
  • Rounce, DR McKinney, DC Lala, JM Byers, AC and Watson, CS. 2016. A new remote hazard and risk assessment framework for glacial lakes in the Nepal Himalaya. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 20: 3455-3475. 10.5194/hess-20-3455-2016
  • Salerno, F Guyennon, N Thakuri, S Viviano, G Romano, E Vuillermoz, E Cristofanelli, P Stocchi, P Agrillo, G Ma, Y and Tartari, G. 2015. Weak precipitation, warm winters and springs impact glaciers of south slopes of Mt. Everest (central Himalaya) in the last 2 decades (1994–2013). The Cryosphere 9: 1229-1247. 10.5194/tc-9-1229-2015
  • Watson, CS Quincey, DJ Carrivick, JL and Smith, MW. 2016. The dynamics of supraglacial ponds in the Everest region, central Himalaya. Global and Planetary Change 142: 14-27.

Scott Watson is a PhD student at the University of Leeds, UK. He studies glaciers in the Everest region and specifically the surface interactions of supraglacial ponds and ice cliffs, which act as positive feedback mechanisms to increase glacier mass loss. He also investigates glacial lake hazards and the implications of glacial lake outburst floods.

Tweets @CScottWatson. Outreach:

Image of the Week – How geometry limits thinning in the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Image of the Week –  How geometry limits thinning in the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet

The Greenland ice sheet flows from the interior out to the margins, forming fast flowing, channelized rivers of ice that end in fjords along the coast. Glaciologists call these “outlet glaciers” and a large portion of the mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet is occurring because of changes to these glaciers. The end of the glacier that sits in the fjord is exposed to warm ocean water that can melt away at its face (a.k.a. its “terminus”) and force the glacier to retreat. As the glaciers retreat, they thin and this thinning can spread into the interior of the ice sheet along the glacier’s flow, causing glaciers to lose ice mass to the ocean as is shown in our Image of the Week. But how far inland can this thinning go?

Not all glaciers behave alike

NASA’s GRACE mission measures mass changes of the Earth and has been used to measure ice mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet (see Fig. 1a). The GRACE mission has been extremely valuable in showing us where the largest changes are occurring: around the edge of the ice sheet. To get a closer look, my colleagues and I use a technique called photogrammetry.

Using high-resolution satellite photos, we created digital elevation models of the present-day outlet glacier surfaces. The imagery was collected by the WorldView satellites and has a resolution of 50 cm per pixel! When we compared our present-day glacier surfaces with surfaces from 1985, with the help of an aerial photo survey of the ice sheet margin (Korsgaard et al., 2016), we found that glacier thinning was not very uniform in the West Greenland region (see our Image of the Week, Fig. 1b). Some glaciers thinned by over 150 meters at their termini but others remained stable and may have even thickened slightly! Another observation is that, of the glaciers that have thinned, some have thinned only 10 kilometers into the interior while others have thinned hundreds of kilometers inland (Felikson et al., 2017).

But atmospheric and ocean temperatures are changing on much larger scales – they can’t be the cause of these huge differences in thinning that we observe between glaciers. So what could be the cause of the differences in glacier behaviour? My colleagues and I used kinematic wave theory to help explain how each glacier’s unique shape (thickness and steepness) can control how far inland thinning can spread…

A kinematic wave of thinning

As a glacier’s terminus retreats, it thins and this thinning can spread upglacier, into the interior of the ice sheet, along the glacier’s flow. This spreading of thinning can be modeled as a diffusive kinematic wave (Nye, 1960). This means that the wave of thinning will diffuse in the upglacier direction while the flow of ice advects the thinning in the downglacier direction. An analogy for this process is the spreading of dye in a flowing stream. The dye will spread away from the source (diffusion) and it will also be transported downstream (advection) with the flow of water.

The relative rates of diffusion and advection are given by a non-dimensional value called the Peclet number. For glacier flow, the Peclet number is a function of the thickness of the ice and the surface slope of the ice. Where the ice is thick and flat, the Peclet number is low, and thinning will diffuse upglacier faster than it advects downglacier. Where the ice is thin and steep, the Peclet number is high, and thinning will advect downglacier faster than in diffuses upglacier.

Let’s take a look at an example, the Kangilerngata Sermia in West Greenland

Figure 2: Thinning along the centreline of Kangilerngata Sermia in West Greenland. (a) Glacier surface profile in 1985 (blue), present-day (red), and bed (black). (b) Dynamic thinning from 1985 to present along the profile with percent unit volume loss along this profile shown as colored line. (c) Peclet number along this profile calculated from the geometry in 1985 with Peclet number running maxima highlighted (red). [Credit: Denis Felikson]

There, dynamic thinning has spread from the terminus along the lowest 33 kilometers (see Fig. 2). At that location, the glacier flows over a bump in the bed, causing the ice to be thin and steep. The Peclet number is “high” in this location, meaning that any thinning here will advect downglacier faster than it can spread upglacier. Two important values are needed to further understand the relationship between volume loss and Peclet number. On the one hand, we compute the “percent unit volume loss”, which is the cumulative thinning from the terminus to each location normalized by the total cumulative thinning, to identify where most of the volume loss is taking place. On the other hand, we identify the “Peclet number running maxima” at the locations where the Peclet number is larger than all downglacier values. These locations are critical because if thinning has spread upglacier beyond a local maximum in the Peclet number, and accessed lower Peclet values, then thinning will continue to spread until it reaches a Peclet number that is “large enough” to prevent further spreading. But just how large does the Peclet number need to be to prevent thinning from spreading further upglacier?

Figure 3: (a) Percent unit volume loss against Peclet number running maximum for 12 thinning glaciers in West Greenland. (b) Distances from the termini along glacier flow where the Peclet number first crosses 3. Abbreviations represent glacier names [Credit: Denis Felikson]

If we now look at the percent unit volume loss versus Peclet number running maxima for not only one but twelve thinning glaciers in the region, we see a clear pattern: as the Peclet number increases, more of the volume loss is occurring downglacier (see Fig. 3). By calculating the medians of the glacier values, we find that 94% of unit volume loss has occurred downglacier of where the Peclet number first crosses three. All glaciers follow this pattern but, because of differences in glacier geometry, this threshold may be crossed very close to the glacier terminus or very far inland. This helps explaining the differences in glacier thinning that we’ve observed along the coast of West Greenland. Also, it shows that the Peclet number can be a useful tool in predicting changes for glaciers that have not yet retreated and thinned.

Further reading