Temporal variations in supraglacial debris distribution on Baltoro Glacier, Karakoram between 2001 and 2012

Morgan Gibson, Neil Glasser, Duncan Joseph Quincey, Christopher Mayer, Ann Victoria Rowan, Tristram Irvine-Fynn

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Distribution of supraglacial debris in a glacier system varies spatially and temporally due to differing rates of debris input, transport and deposition. Supraglacial debris distribution governs the thickness of a supraglacial debris layer, an important control on the amount of ablation that occurs under such a debris layer. Characterising supraglacial debris layer thickness on a glacier is therefore key to calculating ablation across a glacier surface. The spatial pattern of debris thickness on Baltoro Glacier has previously been calculated for one discrete point in time (2004) using satellite thermal data and an empirically based relationship between supraglacial debris layer thickness and debris surface temperature identified in the field. Here, the same empirically based relationship was applied to two further datasets (2001, 2012) to calculate debris layer thickness across Baltoro Glacier for three discrete points over an 11-year period (2001, 2004, 2012). Surface velocity and sediment flux were also calculated, as well as debris thickness change between periods. Using these outputs, alongside geomorphological maps of Baltoro Glacier produced for 2001, 2004 and 2012, spatiotemporal changes in debris distribution for a sub-decadal timescale were investigated. Sediment flux remained constant throughout the 11-year period. The greatest changes in debris thickness occurred along medial moraines, the locations of mass movement deposition and areas of interaction between tributary glaciers and the main glacier tongue. The study confirms the occurrence of spatiotemporal changes in supraglacial debris layer thickness on sub-decadal timescales, independent of variation in surface velocity. Instead, variation in rates of debris distribution are primarily attributed to frequency and magnitude of mass movement events over decadal timescales, with climate, regional uplift and erosion rates expected to control debris inputs over centurial to millennial timescales. Inclusion of such spatiotemporal variations in debris thickness in distributed surface energy balance models would increase the accuracy of calculated ablation, leading to a more accurate simulation of glacier mass balance through time, and greater precision in quantification of the response of debris-covered glaciers to climatic change
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)572-585
Number of pages14
Early online date18 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2017


  • Baltoro Glacier
  • Debris-covered glaciers
  • Karakoram
  • Supraglacial debris


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