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Properties of natural supraglacial debris in relation to modelling sub-debris ice ablation


  • Lindsey Nicholson,

    Corresponding author
    • Centre for Climate and Cryosphere, Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics, University of Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria
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  • Douglas I. Benn

    1. Department of Arctic Geology, University Centre in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway
    2. School of Geography and Geosciences, University of St Andrews, Fife, UK
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Correspondence to: Lindsey Nicholson, Centre for Climate and Cryosphere, Institute for Meteorology and Gephysics, University of Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria. E-mail:


As debris-covered glaciers become a more prominent feature of a shrinking mountain cryosphere, there is increasing need to successfully model the surface energy and mass balance of debris-covered glaciers, yet measurements of the processes operating in natural supraglacial debris covers are sparse. We report measurements of vertical temperature profiles in debris on the Ngozumpa glacier in Nepal, that show: (i) conductive processes dominate during the ablation season in matrix-supported diamict; (ii) ventilation may be possible in coarse surface layers; (iii) phase changes associated with seasonal change have a marked effect on the effective thermal diffusivity of the debris. Effective thermal conductivity determined from vertical temperature profiles in the debris is generally ~30% higher in summer than in winter, but values depend on the volume and phase of water in the debris. Surface albedo can vary widely over small spatial scales, as does the debris thickness. Measurements indicate that debris thickness is best represented as a probability density function with the peak debris thickness increasing down-glacier. The findings from Ngozumpa glacier indicate that the probability distribution of debris thickness changes from positively skewed in the upper glacier towards a more normal distribution nearer the terminus. Although many of these effects remain to be quantified, our observations highlight aspects of spatial and temporal variability in supraglacial debris that may require consideration in annual or multi-annual distributed modelling of debris-covered glacier surface energy and mass balance. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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