Processes at the margins of supraglacial debris cover: Quantifying dirty ice ablation and debris redistribution

Catriona L. Fyffe (Lead / Corresponding author), Amy S. Woodget, Martin P. Kirkbride, Philip Deline, Matthew J. Westoby, Ben W. Brock

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    36 Citations (Scopus)
    101 Downloads (Pure)


    Current glacier ablation models have difficulty simulating the high-melt transition zone between clean and debris-covered ice. In this zone, thin debris cover is thought to increase ablation compared to clean ice, but often this cover is patchy rather than continuous. There is a need to understand ablation and debris dynamics in this transition zone to improve the accuracy of ablation models and the predictions of future debris cover extent. To quantify the ablation of partially debris-covered ice (or ‘dirty ice’), a high-resolution, spatially continuous ablation map was created from repeat unmanned aerial systems surveys, corrected for glacier flow in a novel way using on-glacier ablation stakes. Surprisingly, ablation is similar (range ~5 mm w.e. per day) across a wide range of percentage debris covers (~30–80%) due to the opposing effects of a positive correlation between percentage debris cover and clast size, countered by a negative correlation with albedo. Once debris cover becomes continuous, ablation is significantly reduced (by 61.6% compared to a partial debris cover), and there is some evidence that the cleanest ice (<~15% debris cover) has a lower ablation than dirty ice (by 3.7%). High-resolution feature tracking of clast movement revealed a strong modal clast velocity where debris was continuous, indicating that debris moves by creep down moraine slopes, in turn promoting debris cover growth at the slope toe. However, not all slope margins gain debris due to the removal of clasts by supraglacial streams. Clast velocities in the dirty ice area were twice as fast as clasts within the continuously debris-covered area, as clasts moved by sliding off their boulder tables. These new quantitative insights into the interplay between debris cover characteristics and ablation can be used to improve the treatment of dirty ice in ablation models, in turn improving estimates of glacial meltwater production.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2272-2290
    Number of pages19
    JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
    Issue number10
    Early online date24 Apr 2020
    Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2020


    • ablation
    • debris-covered glaciers
    • dirty ice
    • unmanned aerial systems
    • Østrem curve

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Geography, Planning and Development
    • Earth-Surface Processes
    • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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