08 Apr 2024
 | 08 Apr 2024
Status: this preprint is open for discussion.

Identifying airborne snow metamorphism with stable water isotopes 

Sonja Wahl, Benjamin Walter, Franziska Aemisegger, Luca Bianchi, and Michael Lehning

Abstract. Wind-blown snow is a frequent phenomenon in high-elevation and polar regions which impacts the surface energy and mass balance of these areas. Loose surface snow gets eroded and transported by wind which influences the snow particle’s physical properties (size, shape, optical properties) that determine the characteristics of the emerging wind-impacted snowpack layer. During airborne snow transport, the governing processes are happening on the micro-scale, while the particles are transported over long distances. The unfolding processes and the evolution of the particle’s physical properties are thus difficult to observe in-situ. Here we used cold-laboratory ring wind tunnel experiments as an interim solution to study the governing processes during airborne snow transport with stable water isotopes as tracers for these micro-scale processes. Repeated analysis of airborne-sampled snow by micro-computed tomography (μCT) documented a growing and rounding of snow particles with transport time with a concurrent decrease in specific surface area. Stable water isotope analysis of airborne snow and water vapour allowed us to attribute this evolution to the process of airborne snow metamorphism. The changes observed in the snow isotopic composition showed a clear isotopic signature of metamorphic deposition, which requires particle-air temperature gradients. These results question the validity of the thermal equilibrium assumption between particles and air inside the saltation layer of wind-blown snow events where the conditions are similar to the ones found in the wind tunnel. Our results thus refine the understanding of the governing processes in the saltation layer and suggest that the snow’s isotopic composition can inform on local wind-blown snow events as the original snow isotope signal gets overprinted by airborne snow metamorphism. Thus, airborne snow metamorphism has the potential to influence the climate signal stored in snow and ice core stable water isotope records.

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Sonja Wahl, Benjamin Walter, Franziska Aemisegger, Luca Bianchi, and Michael Lehning

Status: open (until 03 Jun 2024)

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  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2024-745', Anonymous Referee #1, 24 May 2024 reply
Sonja Wahl, Benjamin Walter, Franziska Aemisegger, Luca Bianchi, and Michael Lehning
Sonja Wahl, Benjamin Walter, Franziska Aemisegger, Luca Bianchi, and Michael Lehning


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Short summary
Wind-driven airborne transport of snow is a frequent phenomenon in snow-covered regions and a process difficult to study in the field as it is unfolding over large distances. Thus, we use a ring wind tunnel with infinite fetch positioned in a cold-laboratory to study the evolution of the shape and size of airborne snow. With the help of stable water isotope analyses, we identify the hitherto unobserved process of airborne snow metamorphism that leads to snow particle rounding and growth.