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The Cryosphere An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 18 Jan 2019

Research article | 18 Jan 2019

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This discussion paper is a preprint. It is a manuscript under review for the journal The Cryosphere (TC).

The role of debris cover in the evolution of Zmuttgletscher, Switzerland, since the end of the Little Ice Age

Nico Mölg, Tobias Bolch, Andrea Walter, and Andreas Vieli Nico Mölg et al.
  • Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Zurich, 8057, Switzerland

Abstract. Debris-covered glaciers often exhibit large, flat tongues. Many of these glaciers show high thinning rates today despite thick debris cover. Due to lack of observations, most existing studies have neglected the dynamic interaction between debris cover and glacier evolution over longer time periods. The main aim of this study is to reveal this interaction by reconstructing changes of debris cover, glacier geometry, flow velocities, and surface features of Zmuttgletscher (Switzerland), based on historic maps, satellite images, aerial photographs, and field observations. We show that debris cover extent has increased from ~ 13 % to > 32 % of the total glacier surface since 1859 and that the debris is sufficiently thick to reduce ablation compared to bare ice over much of the ablation area. Despite the debris cover the volume loss of Zmuttgletscher is comparable to that of debris-free glaciers located in similar settings whereas changes in length and area have been small in comparison. Increased ice mass input in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in a temporary velocity increase, as well as a lowering of the upper margin of debris cover and exposed-ice area, and a reduction of ice cliffs. Since ~ 2001, the lowest ~ 1.5 km are stagnant despite a slight increase in surface slope of the glacier tongue. We conclude that the debris cover governs the pattern of volume loss without changing its magnitude, which is due to the large ablation area and strong thinning in regions with thin debris further up-glacier and in the regions of meltwater channels and ice cliffs. At the same time rising temperatures lead to increasing debris cover and decreasing glacier dynamics, thereby slowing down length and area losses.

Nico Mölg et al.
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Nico Mölg et al.
Nico Mölg et al.
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Publications Copernicus
Short summary
Debris can partly protect glaciers from melting. But many debris-covered glaciers change similar to debris-free glaciers. To better understand the debris influence we investigated 150 years of development of Zmuttgletscher in Switzerland. We found an increase of debris extent over time and a link to glacier flow velocity changes. We also found an influence of debris on the melt locally, but only a small volume change reduction over the whole glacier, also because of the influence of ice cliffs.
Debris can partly protect glaciers from melting. But many debris-covered glaciers change similar...