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Numerical modeling of a gravity-driven instability of a cold hanging glacier: reanalysis of the 1895 break-off of Altelsgletscher, Switzerland

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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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  • 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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