The Cryosphere Discuss., 7, 5231-5253, 2013
© Author(s) 2013. This work is distributed
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This discussion paper has been under review for the journal The Cryosphere (TC). Please refer to the corresponding final paper in TC.
Limitations of using a thermal imager for snow pit temperatures
M. Schirmer and B. Jamieson
Department of Civil Engineering, University of Calgary, Canada

Abstract. Driven by temperature gradients, kinetic snow metamorphism is important for avalanche formation. Even when gradients appear to be insufficient for kinetic metamorphism, based on temperatures measured 10 cm apart, faceting close to a~crust can still be observed. Recent studies that visualized small scale (< 10 cm) thermal structures in a profile of snow layers with an infrared (IR) camera produced interesting results. The studies found melt-freeze crusts to be warmer or cooler than the surrounding snow depending on the large scale gradient direction. However, an important assumption within the studies was that a thermal photo of a freshly exposed snow pit was similar enough to the internal temperature of the snow. In this study, we tested this assumption by recording thermal videos during the exposure of the snow pit wall. In the first minute, the results showed increasing gradients with time, both at melt-freeze crusts and at artificial surface structures such as shovel scours. Cutting through a crust with a cutting blade or a shovel produced small concavities (holes) even when the objective was to cut a planar surface. Our findings suggest there is a surface structure dependency of the thermal image, which is only observed at times with large temperature differences between air and snow. We were able to reproduce the hot-crust/cold-crust phenomenon and relate it entirely to surface structure in a temperature-controlled cold laboratory. Concave areas cooled or warmed slower compared with convex areas (bumps) when applying temperature differences between snow and air. This can be explained by increased radiative transfer or convection by air at convex areas. Thermal videos suggest that such processes influence the snow temperature within seconds. Our findings show the limitations of the use of a thermal camera for measuring pit-wall temperatures, particularly in scenarios where large gradients exist between air and snow and the interaction of snow pit and atmospheric temperatures are enhanced. At crusts or other heterogeneities, we were unable to create a sufficiently homogenous snow pit surface and non-internal gradients appeared at the exposed surface. The immediate adjustment of snow pit temperature as it reacts with the atmosphere complicates the capture of the internal thermal structure of a snowpack even with thermal videos. Instead, the shown structural dependency of the IR signal may be used to detect structural changes of snow caused by kinetic metamorphism. The IR signal can also be used to measure near surface temperatures in a homogenous new snow layer.

Citation: Schirmer, M. and Jamieson, B.: Limitations of using a thermal imager for snow pit temperatures, The Cryosphere Discuss., 7, 5231-5253, doi:10.5194/tcd-7-5231-2013, 2013.
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