Heterogeneity in supraglacial debris thickness and its role in glacier mass changes of the Mount Gongga

Research paper by Yong Zhang, Yukiko Hirabayashi, Koji Fujita, ShiYin Liu, Qiao Liu

Indexed on: 21 Sep '15Published on: 21 Sep '15Published in: Science China Earth Sciences


In the Tibetan Plateau, many glaciers have extensive covers of supraglacial debris in their ablation zones, which affects glacier response to climate change by altering ice melting and spatial patterns of mass loss. Insufficient debris thickness data make it difficult to analyze regional debris-cover effects. Maritime glaciers of the Mount Gongga have been characterized by a substantial reduction in glacier area and ice mass in recent decades. The thermal property of the debris layer estimated from remotely sensed data reveals that debris-covered glaciers are dominant in this region, on which the proportion of debris cover to total glacier area varies from 1.74% to 53.0%. Using a physically-based debris-cover effect assessment model, we found that although the presence of supraglacial debris has a significant insulating effect on heavily debris-covered glaciers, it accelerates ice melting on ~10.2% of total ablation zone and produces rapid wastage of ~25% of the debris-covered glaciers, leading to the similar mass losses between the debris-covered and debris-free glaciers. Widespread debris cover also facilitates the development of active terminus regions. Regional differences in debris-cover effects are apparent, highlighting the importance of debris cover for understanding glacier mass changes in the Tibetan Plateau and other mountain ranges around the world.