Cryospheric Sciences


Image of the Week – Drilling into a Himalayan glacier

Image of the Week – Drilling into a Himalayan glacier

How water travels through and beneath the interior of debris-covered glaciers is poorly understood, partly because it can be difficult to access these glaciers at all, never mind explore their interiors. In this Image of the Week, find out how these aspects can be investigated by drilling holes all the way through the ice…

Hydrological features of debris-covered glaciers

Debris-covered glaciers can have a range of hydrological features that do not usually appear on clean-ice valley glaciers, such as surface (supraglacial) ponds. These features are produced as a result of the variable melting that occurs across the glacier surface, depending on the thickness of the debris layer on the surface. Melting is reduced where the debris layer is thick (e.g. near the terminus), which leads to mass loss primarily by thinning, rather than terminus retreat like clean-ice glaciers (read more about this process in this previous blog post). This produces a low-gradient surface covered by hummocks and depressions in which ponds can form, often with steep bare ice faces (ice cliffs) surrounding them. The occurrence of ice cliffs and ponds also affects the surface melt rate, as glacier ice in/on/under these features melts considerably faster (up to 10 and 7 times more, respectively) than that of the debris-covered areas surrounding them (Sakai et al., 2000). Consequently, these hydrological features are an important contributing factor to the general trend of surface lowering of debris-covered glaciers (Bolch et al., 2012).

As a result, most hydrological research on debris-covered glaciers to date has focused on the (more accessible) supraglacial hydrological environment, as well as measuring the proglacial discharge of meltwater from these glaciers, which is a vital water resource for millions of people (Pritchard, 2017). Below the debris-covered surface of these glaciers, next-to-nothing is known about their hydrology; do drainage networks exist within (englacial) or beneath (subglacial) these glaciers, can they exist, and how can they be observed in such challenging environments?

A limited amount of direct research has been carried out in attempt to answer some of these questions, such as speleological techniques to investigate shallow englacial systems on a few glaciers (e.g. Gulley and Benn, 2007; Narama et al., 2017). However, all other inferences of subsurface drainage through debris-covered glaciers have come from hydrogeochemical analyses of water samples taken from the proglacial environment (e.g. Hasnain and Thayyen, 1994) or interpretation of observed glacier dynamics from satellite imagery (e.g. Quincey et al., 2009). While relict englacial features can be observed on the surface of many debris-covered glaciers (Figure 2), studying these systems while they are still active is more difficult.

Fig. 2: A relict englacial feature in the centre of an ice cliff on Khumbu Glacier (looking downglacier), through which the associated supraglacial pond is thought to have drained in the past. Following the drainage event, the pond water-level would have dropped, exposing the ice cliffs around its edge and resulting in the pond water-level being too low to sustain a water flow through the channel. The inset shows the same feature from the far side (looking upglacier): on this side, a vast amount of surface lowering of the ice surface has occurred and the previously englacial channel is now visible from the surface. For scale, the feature is approximately 10 metres in height. [Large image credit: Evan Miles; Inset image credit: Katie Miles]

Hot-water drilling to investigate subsurface hydrology

One way in which potential hydrological systems beneath the surface of debris-covered glaciers can be investigated is through the use of hot-water drilling, as was carried out on Khumbu Glacier, Nepal Himalaya this year by the EverDrill team. A converted car pressure-washer was used to produce a small jet of hot, pressurised water, which was sent through a spool of hose into the drill stem to melt the ice below as it was slowly lowered into the glacier (our Image of the Week). The result (if all went well!) was a borehole 10-15 cm in width, that penetrated the ice all the way to the glacier bed (Figure 3). During the field campaign, we managed to drill 13 boreholes at 3 different drill sites across Khumbu Glacier, ranging in length from 12 to 155 metres.

Once the borehole has been drilled, it can be used to investigate the hydrology of the glacier in a number of ways. If the water level suddenly drops while drilling is in progress, it is possible that the borehole has cut through an englacial conduit, through which the excess drill water has drained. If it drops at the base of a borehole drilled to the bed, it can be assumed that some form of subglacial drainage network exists at the base of the glacier, and the excess water drained through this system. Such features can be examined further through the use of an optical televiewer (360° camera that is lowered slowly through the length of the borehole, taking hundreds of images to give a complete picture of the internal surface of the borehole), or by installing a variety of sensors along the hole’s length to collect various types of data.

Fig. 3: A borehole drilled into Khumbu Glacier during the EverDrill field season in Spring 2017. The borehole was approximately 10 cm in width. A small channel (to the left of the borehole) was formed during the drilling process to drain away the excess water as the borehole was drilled. [Credit: Katie Miles]

During the EverDrill fieldwork in Spring 2017, we televiewed three of the drilled boreholes. These boreholes were then instrumented with sensors to measure the temperature of the ice and, where the boreholes reached the bed, a subglacial probe to measure electrical conductivity, temperature, water pressure and suspended sediment concentration (turbidity). We have left these probes in the boreholes, so that we have measurements both through our field season and additionally through the monsoon summer months. This will allow us to see whether any subsurface hydrological drainage systems develop when there is an additional source of water contributing to the melting of these glaciers. We will return in October to collect this data, and hopefully find out a little more about the englacial and subglacial drainage systems of this debris-covered glacier!

Further reading

Edited by Morgan Gibson, Clara Burgard and Emma Smith

Katie Miles is a PhD student in the Centre for Glaciology, Aberystwyth University, UK, studying the internal structure and subsurface hydrology of high-elevation debris-covered glaciers in the Himalaya by investigating boreholes and measurements that can be made within them. She is also interested in the potential of Sentinel-1 SAR imagery in detecting lakes on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Katie tweets at @Katie_Miles_851, contact email:

Image of The Week – A Game of Drones (Part 1: A Debris-Covered Glacier)

Image of The Week – A Game of Drones (Part 1: A Debris-Covered Glacier)

What are debris-covered glaciers?

Many alpine glaciers are covered with a layer of surface debris (rock and sediment), which is sourced primarily from glacier headwalls and valley flanks. So-called ‘debris-covered glaciers’ are found in most glacierized regions, with concentrations in the European Alps, the Caucasus, Hindu-Kush-Himalaya, Karakoram and Tien Shan, the Andes, and Alaska and the western Cordillera of North America. Debris cover is important for ice dynamics for several reasons:

  • A layer of surface debris thicker than a few centimetres suppresses ice ablation (Brock et al., 2010), as it insulates the underlying ice from atmospheric heat and insolation.
  • In contrast, a thin layer of debris serves to enhance melt rates through reduced albedo (reflectance) and enhanced heat transfer to underlying ice.
  • A continuous or near-continuous layer of debris can result in debris-covered glaciers persisting at lower elevations than, and attaining lengths which exceed those of their ‘clean ice’ counterparts (Anderson and Anderson, 2016).

Miage Glacier – the largest debris-covered glacier in the European Alps

The Ghiacciaio del Miage, or Miage Glacier, is Italy’s longest glacier and is the largest debris-covered glacier in the European Alps. It is situated in the Aosta Valley, on the southwest flank of the Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco massif. The glacier descends from ~3800 m to ~1700 m above sea level (a.s.l.) across a distance of around 10 km, and is fed by four tributary glaciers. The glacier surface is extensively debris-covered below ~2400 m a.s.l., and the average surface debris thickness is 0.25 m across the lower 5 km of the glacier (Foster et al., 2012).


Figure 2: Up-glacier view of Miage Glacier, in which three of the glacier’s four tributaries are visible – from upper centre-left: Tête Carée Glacier, Bionnassay Glacier, Dome Glacier.

Figure 2: Up-glacier view of Miage Glacier, in which three of the glacier’s four tributaries are visible – from upper centre-left: Tête Carée Glacier, Bionnassay Glacier, Dome Glacier.

Glacier surveying using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Researchers from Northumbria University, UK, acquired these images of the glacier using a lightweight unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) during a recent field visit to Miage Glacier. During the visit the team carried out a range of activities including the installation and maintenance of a network of weather stations and temperature loggers across the glacier and geomorphological surveying of the glacier and its catchment, whilst undergraduate students collected data for their final-year research projects. The UAV imagery reveals the emergence of surface debris cover from beneath winter snow cover and the persistence of a channelized hydrological network in the snowpack, characterised as a cascade of streams and storage ponds. A recent study by Fyffe et al. (2015) found that high early-season melt rates and runoff concentration in intermoraine troughs promotes the development of a channelized subglacial hydrological system in mid-glacier areas, whilst the drainage system beneath continuously debris-covered areas down-glacier is largely inefficient due to lower melt inputs and hummocky topography.

(Edited by Emma Smith and Sophie Berger)

Matt Westoby is a postdoctoral researcher at Northumbria University, UK. He is a quantitative geomorphologist, and uses novel high-resolution surveying technologies including repeat UAV-based Structure-from-Motion to quantify surface processes and landscape evolution in glacial and ice-marginal environments. Fieldwork on the Miage Glacier in June 2016 was supported in part by an Early Career Researcher Grant from the British Society for Geomorphology. He tweets as @MattWestoby Contact e-mail: