Debris covered glaciers

One day in September, I joined my friend and colleague Lindsey on her field work to Suldenferner. Lindsey is a glaciologist with a particular interest in debris covered glaciers. I only learnt of the existence of this kind of glacier a year or so ago when I first met Lindsey. Many of the worlds glaciers are covered with layers of debris. Depending on the thickness of the debris layer, it either insulates and therefore protects the glacier from a warming climate or accelerates melting by decreasing  the albedo. However, those glaciers are not very well understood in terms of the processes taking place in the debris cover and how they affect the energy and therefore mass balance of a glacier. Lindseys project aims at improving this knowledge through a combination of modeling as well as laboratory studies and observations of the debris layer.


Debris cover on Suldenferner

On this particular day we walked to check on the weather station she put up on the glacier about a month earlier and, on the way, to collect some temperature sensors she put out a year ago. Knowing about the environmental conditions on the glacier is important for interpreting various other measurements, Lindsey plans to carry out on the glacier. It turned out that the weather station had melted out more than a meter during the previous month. Clearly, the debris cover on this glacier is not doing a very good job a protecting the glacier from melting.


weather station on Suldenferner

For me it was an exciting and interesting trip in the impressive scenery of the Alpes (the Ortler, the highest mountain in Tyrol was just around the corner but hiding in the clouds) – definitely different from just another day in the office. It, however, also reminded me that being an experimental scientist/glaciologist is not just about walking around on beautiful glaciers enjoying the outdoors and the scenery. It is hard and potentially frustrating work involving putting up with instruments that do not work the way they are supposed to (for no obvious reason), sometimes harsh weather conditions and long days with big and heavy backpacks and hard physical work.

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