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Retreating alpine glaciers: increased melt rates due to accumulation of dust (Vadret da Morteratsch, Switzerland)

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The automatic weather station (AWS) on the snout of the Vadret da Morteratsch, Switzerland, has delivered a unique 12 year meteorological dataset from the ablation zone of a temperate glacier. This dataset can be used to study multi-annual trends in the character of the surface energy budget. Since 2003 there has been a substantial darkening of the glacier tongue due to the accumulation of mineral and biogenic dust. The typical surface albedo in summer has dropped from 0.32 to 0.15. We have analysed the implications of the lowered albedo for the energy balance and the annual ablation. For the 4 year period 2003–06, the decreased albedo caused an additional removal of about 3.5 m of ice. Calculations with an energy-balance model show that the same increase in ablation is obtained by keeping the ice albedo fixed to 0.32 and increasing the air temperature by 1.7 K. Our analysis confirms that for retreating glaciers the deposition of dust from exposed side moraines on the glacier surface constitutes an important feedback mechanism. The mineral dust stimulates the growth of algae, lowers the surface albedo, enhances the melt rates, and thereby facilitates the further retreat of the glacier snout.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: September 1, 2009

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  • The Journal of Glaciology is published six times per year. It accepts submissions from any discipline related to the study of snow and ice. All articles are peer reviewed. The Journal is included in the ISI Science Citation Index.
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