Numerical modeling of a gravity-driven instability of a cold hanging glacier: reanalysis of the 1895 break-off of Altelsgletscher, Switzerland
Abstract:The Altels hanging glacier in Switzerland broke off on 11 September 1895. The ice volume of this catastrophic rupture was estimated as 4 × 106 m3, the largest icefall event ever observed in the Alps. However, the causes of this collapse are not entirely clear. Based on previous studies, we reanalyzed this break-off event, with the help of a new numerical model, initially developed by Faillettaz and others (2010) for gravity-driven instabilities. The simulations indicate that a break-off event is only possible when the basal friction at the bedrock is reduced in a restricted area, possibly induced by the storage of infiltrated water within the glacier. Further, our simulations reveal a two-step behavior: (1) a first quiescent phase, without visible changes, with a duration depending on the rate of change in basal friction; (2) an active phase with a rapid increase of basal motion over a few days. The general lesson obtained from the comparison between the simulations and available observations is that detectable precursors (crevasse formation and velocity increase) of the destabilization process of a hanging glacier, resulting from a progressive warming of the ice/bed interface towards a temperate regime, will appear only a few days prior to the break-off.
Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: October 1, 2011
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