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Interannual snow accumulation variability on glaciers derived from repeat spatially extensive ground-penetrating radar surveys

November 22, 2018

There is significant uncertainty regarding the spatiotemporal distribution of seasonal snow on glaciers, despite being a fundamental component of glacier mass balance. To address this knowledge gap, we collected repeat, spatially extensive high-frequency ground-penetrating radar (GPR) observations on two glaciers in Alaska for five consecutive years. GPR measurements showed steep snow water equivalent (SWE) elevation gradients at both sites; continental Gulkana Glacier’s SWE gradient averaged 115 mm 100 m–1 and maritime Wolverine Glacier’s gradient averaged 440 mm 100 m–1 (over >1000 m). We extrapolated GPR point observations across the glacier surface using terrain parameters derived from digital elevation models as predictor variables in two statistical models (stepwise multivariable linear regression and regression trees). Elevation and proxies for wind redistribution had the greatest explanatory power, and exhibited relatively time-constant coefficients over the study period. Both statistical models yielded comparable estimates of glacier-wide average SWE (1 % average difference at Gulkana, 4 % average difference at Wolverine), although the spatial distributions produced by the models diverged in unsampled regions of the glacier, particularly at Wolverine. In total, six different methods for estimating the glacier-wide average agreed within ± 11 %. We assessed interannual variability in the spatial pattern of snow accumulation predicted by the statistical models using two quantitative metrics. Both glaciers exhibited a high degree of temporal stability, with ~85 % of the glacier area experiencing less than 25 % normalized absolute variability over this five-year interval. We found SWE at a sparse network (3 stakes per glacier) of long-term glaciological stake sites to be highly correlated with the GPR-derived glacier-wide average. We estimate that interannual variability in the spatial pattern of SWE is only a small component (4–10 % of glacier-wide average) of the total mass balance uncertainty and thus, our findings support the concept that sparse stake networks effectively measure interannual variability in winter balance on glaciers, rather than some spatially varying pattern of snow accumulation.

Publication Year 2019
Title Interannual snow accumulation variability on glaciers derived from repeat spatially extensive ground-penetrating radar surveys
DOI 10.5194/tc-12-3617-2018
Authors Daniel J McGrath, Louis Sass, Shad O'Neel, Christopher J. McNeil, Salvatore G Candela, Emily Baker, Hans P. Marshall
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title The Cryosphere
Index ID 70207166
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Water