Reviews of Geophysics

Water flow through temperate glaciers

Authors

  • Andrew G. Fountain,

  • Joseph S. Walder


Abstract

Understanding water movement through a glacier is fundamental to several critical issues in glaciology, including glacier dynamics, glacier-induced floods, and the prediction of runoff from glacierized drainage basins. To this end we have synthesized a conceptual model of water movement through a temperate glacier from the surface to the outlet stream. Processes that regulate the rate and distribution of water input at the glacier surface and that regulate water movement from the surface to the bed play important but commonly neglected roles in glacier hydrology. Where a glacier is covered by a layer of porous, permeable firn (the accumulation zone), the flux of water to the glacier interior varies slowly because the firn temporarily stores water and thereby smooths out variations in the supply rate. In the firn-free ablation zone, in contrast, the flux of water into the glacier depends directly on the rate of surface melt or rainfall and therefore varies greatly in time. Water moves from the surface to the bed through an upward branching arborescent network consisting of both steeply inclined conduits, formed by the enlargement of intergranular veins, and gently inclined conduits, spawned by water flow along the bottoms of near-surface fractures (crevasses). Englacial drainage conduits deliver water to the glacier bed at a limited number of points, probably a long distance downglacier of where water enters the glacier. Englacial conduits supplied from the accumulation zone are quasi steady state features that convey the slowly varying water flux delivered via the firn. Their size adjusts so that they are usually full of water and flow is pressurized. In contrast, water flow in englacial conduits supplied from the ablation area is pressurized only near times of peak daily flow or during rainstorms; flow is otherwise in an open-channel configuration. The subglacial drainage system typically consists of several elements that are distinct both morphologically and hydrologically. An upglacier branching, arborescent network of channels incised into the basal ice conveys water rapidly. Much of the water flux to the bed probably enters directly into the arborescent channel network, which covers only a small fraction of the glacier bed. More extensive spatially is a nonarborescent network, which commonly includes cavities (gaps between the glacier sole and bed), channels incised into the bed, and a layer of permeable sediment. The nonarborescent network conveys water slowly and is usually poorly connected to the arborescent system. The arborescent channel network largely collapses during winter but reforms in the spring as the first flush of meltwater to the bed destabilizes the cavities within the nonarborescent network. The volume of water stored by a glacier varies diurnally and seasonally. Small, temperate alpine glaciers seem to attain a maximum seasonal water storage of ∼200 mm of water averaged over the area of the glacier bed, with daily fluctuations of as much as 20–30 mm. The likely storage capacity of subglacial cavities is insufficient to account for estimated stored water volumes, so most water storage may actually occur englacially. Stored water may also be released abruptly and catastrophically in the form of outburst floods.

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