Cryospheric Sciences

Velocity measurements

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 – Antarctica’s Flowing Ice, Year by Year

Fig 1: Map series of annual ice sheet speed from Mouginot et al. (2017). Speeds range from 0 (purple) to 1000+ (dark brown) m/yr. [Credit: George Roth]

Today’s Image of the Week shows annual ice flow velocity mosaics at 1km resolution from 2005 to 2016 for the Antarctic ice sheet. These mosaics, along with similar data for Greenland (see Fig.2), were published by Mouginot et al, (2017) last month as part of NASA’s MEaSUREs (Making Earth System Data Records for Use in Research Environments) program.

How were these images constructed?

The mosaics shown today (Fig 1 and 2) were built by combining optical imagery from the Landsat-8 satellite with radar (SAR) data from the Sentinel-1a/b, RADARSAT-2, ALOS PALSAR, ENVISAT ASAR, RADARSAT-1, TerraSAR-X, and TanDEM-X sensors.

Although the authors used the well-known techniques of feature and speckle tracking to produce their velocities from optical and radar images, respectively, the major novelty of their study lies in the automation and integration of the different datasets.

Fig.2: Mosaics of yearly velocity maps of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet for the period 2015-2016.Composite of satellite-derived yearly ice sheet speeds from 2005-2016 for both Greenland and Antarctica. [Credit: cover figure from Mouginot et al. (2017)]

How is this new dataset useful?

Previously, ice sheet modellers have used mosaics composed of satellite data from multiple years to cover the entire ice sheet. However, this new dataset is one of the first to provide an ice-sheet-wide geographic scale, a yearly temporal resolution, and a moderately high spatial resolution (1km). This means that modellers can now better examine how large parts of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets evolve over time. By linking the evolution of the ice sheets to the changes in weather and climate over those ice sheets during specific years, modellers can calibrate the response of those ice sheets’ outlet glaciers to different climate conditions. The changes in the speeds of these outlet glaciers have important consequences for the amount of sea level rise expected for a given amount of warming.

How can I start using this data?

The yearly MEaSUREs data is hosted at the NSIDC in NetCDF format. The maps shown in the animated image were made using Quantarctica/QGIS (for more information on Quantarctica, check out our previous post E). QGIS natively supports NetCDF files like these mosaics with no additional import steps. Users can quickly calculate new grids showing speed, changes in velocities between years, and more by using the QGIS Raster Calculator or gdal_calc.

References/ Further Reading

Mouginot, J., Rignot, E., Scheuchl, B., & Millan, R. (2017). Comprehensive Annual Ice Sheet Velocity Mapping Using Landsat-8, Sentinel-1, and RADARSAT-2 Data. Remote Sensing, 9(4), 364.

Image of the Week – Quantarctica: Mapping Antarctica has never been so easy!

Image of the Week – A high-resolution picture of Greenland’s surface mass balance

Written with help from Jelte van Oostsveen
Edited by Clara Burgard and Sophie Berger

George Roth is the Quantarctica Project Coordinator in the Glaciology group (@NPIglaciology) at the Norwegian Polar Institute. He has spent the last several years helping researchers with GIS, cartography, and remote sensing in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Image of the Week – How ocean tides affect ice flow

Image of the Week – How ocean tides affect ice flow

Ice streams discharge approximately 90% of the Antarctic ice onto ice shelves , and ultimately into the sea into the sea (Bamber et al., 2000; Rignot et al., 2011). Whilst flow-speed changes on annual timescales are frequently discussed, we consider here what happens on much shorter timescales!

Previous studies have shown that ice streams can respond to ocean tides at distances up to 100km inland (e.g. Gudmundsson, 2006 ; Murray et al., 2007; Rosier et al, 2014); new high-resolution remotely sensed data provide a synpoptic-scale view of the response of ice flow in Rutford Ice Stream (West Antarctica), to ocean tidal motion.

These are the first results to capture the flow of an entire ice stream and its proximal ice shelf in all three spatial dimensions and in time.

The ocean controls the Antarctic ice sheet

The ice-ocean interface is very important as nearly all ice-mass loss occurs directly into the ocean in Antarctica (Shepherd et al., 2012). Many areas terminate on ice shelves (the floating ice that connects with the land ice), which are fed by the flow of ice from the ice sheet. Any changes to the floating ice shelf alter the forces acting on the grounded ice upstream, therefore directly affecting the ice sheet evolution (e.g. Gudmundsson, 2013; Scambos et al, 2004).

Because ocean tides are well-understood, we can use the response of grounded ice streams to ocean tidal uplift over the ice shelf to better understand how ice sheets respond to ocean-induced changes.

An ice stream and ice shelf respond to forcing by ocean tides

Floating ice shelves are directly affected by tides, as their vertical displacement will be altered. These tidal variations are on short timescales (hourly to daily) compared to the timescales generally associated with ice flow (yearly). The question therefore is, how much can the tides affect horizontal flow speeds, and how far inland of the ice shelf are these effects felt?

The movie below, by Brent Minchew et al, shows the significant response of Rutford Ice Stream and its ice shelf to forcing by the tides. Using high-resolution synthetic aperture radar data they are able to infer the significant spatio-temporal response of Rutford Ice Stream in West Antarctica to ocean tidal forcing. The flow is modulated by the ocean tides to nearly 100km inland of the grounding line. These flow variations propagate inland at a mean rate of approximately 30 km/day and are sensitive to local ice thickness and the mechanical properties of the ice-bed interface. Variations in horizontal ice flow originate over the ice shelf, indicating a change in (restraining force) over tidal timescales, which is largely attributable to the ice shelf lifting off of shallow bathymetry near the margins. Upstream propagation of ice flow variations provides insights into the sensitivity of grounded ice streams to variations in ice shelf buttressing.

Horizontal ice flow on Rutford Ice Stream inferred from 9 months of continuous synthetic aperture radar observations. (a) Total horizontal flow. Colormap indicates horizontal speed and arrows give flow direction. (b) Detrended horizontal flow variability over a 14.77-day period. Colormap indicates the along-flow component (negative values oppose flow) while arrows indicate magnitude and direction of tidal variability. Contour lines give secular horizontal speed in 20 cm/day increments. (c) Modelled vertical tidal displacement over the ice shelf. (Credit : Brent Minchew)


B. M. Minchew, M. Simons, B. V. Riel, and P. Milillo. Tidally induced variations in vertical and horizontal motion on Rutford Ice Stream, West Antarctica, inferred from remotely sensed observations. submitted to JGR, 2016

(Edited by Sophie Berger and Emma Smith)


Teresa Kyrke-Smith is a postdoctoral researcher at the British Antarctic Survey, on the iSTAR grant. She works on using inversion methods to learn about the nature of basal control on the flow of Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica. She completed her PhD two years ago in Oxford; her thesis focused on the feedbacks between ice streams and subglacial hydrology.

Brent Minchew is an National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow also now based at the British Antarctic Survey.



Image of the Week – Antarctic fieldwork 50 years ago!

Image of the Week – Antarctic fieldwork 50 years ago!

So far this blog has published many pictures of current polar field work campaigns. Today, we would like to take you back to Antarctic expeditions during the 1960s. The photos presented in this post date back from the Belgian-Dutch Antarctic field campaigns of 1964-1966.

The first picture shows Ken Blaiklock (red overalls) with a Belgian surveyor. Ken was part of the 1955–58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition – completing the first overland Antarctic crossing via the south pole. This shot was taken during the 1964-1965 summer campaign, as they were surveying the displacement of glaciers in the Sør Rondane Mountains, East Antarctica.  At that time, the men had to leave the base station for three weeks with two dog-sled pulled by a small skidoo-like vehicle. Remarkably, this shot doesn’t look too dissimilar to many field campaigns today, where the same type of sledges are still used and the clothing worn is also very similar. However, logistical support was very different, with no technicians or field guides those who were part of the polar expeditions of 50 years ago had to be experts at everything!

The second picture illustrates how precise positions (and relative displacements) were measured at that time. No fancy GPS technology, but a network of markers and theodolites. The shot was taken on a pinning point, close to the front of the Roi Baudouin Ice shelf, during the overwintering campaign of 1965 (where people had to stay in Antarctica for 15 months).

A geodesist measuring the precision position of a marker with his theodolite, overwintering campaign in Antarctica, 1965. (Credit: Jean-Jacques Derwael)

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