Short-term cooling, drying and deceleration of an ice-rich rock glacier
Abstract. Observations in the European Alps show a long-term rise in rock glacier velocities, which is often associated with increased air and ground temperatures and, more recently, water content. Long term rock glacier acceleration is superimposed by a high interannual variability of their velocity and there is still a gap in the quantitative assessment of the role of water in rock glaciers and the factors leading to short-term rock glacier deceleration.
To address this research gap, we drilled three vertical boreholes in the Schafberg rock glacier, Swiss Alps, in August 2020. We documented their stratigraphy and equipped one of the boreholes with temperature sensors and piezometers, and the other two with cross-borehole electrical resistivity tomography sensors. Rock glacier velocities were determined using terrestrial laser scans. Using data from nearby weather stations and ground surface temperature sensors we analyzed the interactions between meteorological and subsurface conditions during a rock glacier deceleration period, from January 2021 to July 2023.
Our findings show that a lowering of the water content in rock glaciers is crucial for intermittent, interannual rock glacier deceleration. The impact of the snowpack, both as an insulator and as a water source is significant for rock glacier kinematics. Winters with little snow and relatively dry summers appear to be ideal for rock glacier cooling and drying, leading to deceleration. Summer heat waves have limited impact on rock glacier velocity if they are preceded by snow-poor winters.
Our study uses an innovative combination of borehole data to gain insights into rock glacier temperatures and water contents, allowing to detect relative changes in ice/water contents in ice-rich permafrost. The monitoring techniques used have the potential to contribute to a better understanding of factors affecting rock glacier kinematics and water availability.
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