Polythermal glacier hydrology: a review

Tristram D. L. Irvine-Fynn, Andrew J. Hodson, Brian J. Moorman, Geir Vatne, Alun L. Hubbard

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The manner by which meltwater drains through a glacier is critical to ice dynamics, runoff characteristics, and water quality. However, much of the contemporary knowledge relating to glacier hydrology has been based upon, and conditioned by, understanding gleaned from temperate valley glaciers. Globally, a significant proportion of glaciers and ice sheets exhibit nontemperate thermal regimes. The recent, growing concern over the future response of polar glaciers and ice sheets to forecasts of a warming climate and lengthening summer melt season necessitates recognition of the hydrological processes in these nontemperate ice masses. It is therefore timely to present an accessible review of the scientific progress in glacial hydrology where nontemperate conditions are dominant. This review provides an appraisal of the glaciological literature from nontemperate glaciers, examining supraglacial, englacial, and subglacial environments in sequence and their role in hydrological processes within glacierized catchments. In particular, the variability and complexity in glacier thermal regimes are discussed, illustrating how a unified model of drainage architecture is likely to remain elusive due to structural controls on the presence of water. Cold ice near glacier surfaces may reduce meltwater flux into the glacier interior, but observations suggest that the transient thermal layer of near surface ice holds a hydrological role as a depth-limited aquifer. Englacial flowpaths may arise from the deep incision of supraglacial streams or the propagation of hydrofractures, forms which are readily able to handle varied meltwater discharge or act as locations for water storage, and result in spatially discrete delivery of water to the subglacial environment. The influence of such drainage routes on seasonal meltwater release is explored, with reference to summer season upwellings and winter icing formation. Moreover, clear analogies emerge between nontemperate valley glacier and ice sheet hydrology, the discussion of which indicates how persistent reassessment of our conceptualization of glacier drainage systems is required. There is a clear emphasis that continued, integrated endeavors focused on process glaciology at nontemperate glaciers are a scientific imperative to augmenting the existing body of research centered on ice mass hydrology.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberRG4002
Number of pages37
JournalReviews of Geophysics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2011


  • conceptual models
  • hydrology
  • polythermal glaciers
  • stream hydraulics
  • thermal regime
  • weathering crust


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