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Keywords:

  • debris-covered glacier;
  • supraglacial debris;
  • ablation;
  • glacier response;
  • European Alps

ABSTRACT

Glaciological controls on debris cover formation are investigated from the perspective of primary dispersal of supraglacial debris across a melting ice surface. This involves the migration of angled debris septa outcrops across a melting, thinning glacier ablation zone. Three measures of a glacier's ability to evacuate supraglacial debris are outlined: (1) a concentration factor describing the focusing of englacial debris into specific supraglacial mass loads; (2) the rate of migration of a septum outcrop relative to the local ice surface; and (3) a downstream velocity differential between a slower septum outcrop and the faster ice surface velocity. Measures (1) and (2) are inversely related, while measure (3) increases down-glacier to explain why slow-moving, thinning ice rapidly becomes debris covered. Data from Glacier d'Estelette (Italian Alps) are used to illustrate these processes, and to explore the potential for debris cover formation and growth in different glaciological environments. The transition from a ‘clean’, transport-dominated to a debris-covered ablation-dominated glacier is explained by the melting out of more closely-spaced debris septa, in combination with the geometric interactions of angled septa and ice surface in a field of reducing flow and increasing ablation. The growth and shrinkage of debris covers are most sensitive to glaciological changes at glaciers with gently-dipping debris-bearing foliation, but less sensitive at high-compression glaciers whose termini are constrained by moraine dams and other forms of obstruction. These findings show that a variety of debris-covered glacier types will show a spectrum of response characteristics to negative mass balance. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.