This page is a compilation of frequency asked questions relating to debris-covered (rocky) glaciers and research expeditions.
1. What is a debris-covered glacier?
A: A glacier where the glacier ice is covered by a layer of sand, gravel, rocks, and boulders. This debris layer ranges from millimetres to several metres thick and changes how the glacier behaves. The surface may resemble a quarry, but underneath the debris there can be 100s of metres of ice.
2. Where does all the debris come from?
A: The debris is mainly sourced from the surrounding mountains during rockfall and avalanche events. When a glacier has thinned considerably, debris can also come from lateral moraine collapse.
3. How does the debris change how the glacier melts?
A: Studies have show that where debris is thin (i.e less than a few centimetres), the darker colour absorbs more solar radiation and increases the melt rate of ice beneath. However, when the debris is thicker it can insulate the ice beaneath because less of the thermal energy is able to reach the glacier ice. On glaciers like the Khumbu where the debris is over a metre thick over a large area, the highest melt rates occur around ice cliffs and supraglacial ponds, and higher up the glacier where the debris is thinner.
4. If the debris-covered glaciers are melting, why don't they retreat up the valley?
The debris layer changes how the glacier melts (see above), which means that rather than retreating up the valley, these heavily debris-covered glaciers thin. This surface lowering can be up to several metres every year and is clear when seen in relation to the lateral moraines, which mark the past elevation of the glacier.
5. Do debris-covered glaciers still flow?
A: The glaciers still flow, but generally not as fast. Debris-covered glaciers typically have a low surface gradient, which reduces the driving force for ice deformation and flow. On the Khumbu Glacier, the velocity decreases from around 40 metres per year below the icefall, to less than 1 metre per year near the terminus.
6. Why do the glaciers have lakes on their surface?
A: These supraglacial (i.e. surface) lakes or ponds are formed when meltwater accumulates above impermeable ice beneath. As they warm they melt more ice and can grow larger and ponds can coalesce into a larger lake. Some may persist for several years or even decades. However, often they drain rapidly when they intercept a channel flowing into the glacier.
7. Do the local communities care about melting glaciers?
This would depend who you speak to. It is estimated that glacier fed rivers across the Himalaya provide services such as irrigation, sanitation, and hydropower to a fifth of the world's population. They also provide meltwater during the dry season before the Indian Summer Monsoon. However, many communities live in villages well above the glacier fed rivers because the water often contains too much sediment to be useful and to avoid potential floods. These communities get their water from mountain streams instead, so are less concerned with glacier change, and more with climate change in general.
How long does it take to get to the glaciers?
A: To get to the glaciers in the Himalaya it would typically take over a week. For example travelling to the Everest region (where thousands of trekkers walk to Basecamp every year) would involve several international flights, an internal flight to Lukla airport, and then a seven to eight day walk through the mountains. The elevation gain means although the walk could be completed quicker, your body needs to acclimatise to the thinner air on the way up.
Where do you stay when working on the glacier?
A: Depending on the location, accommodation would generally be in tents (with a warm sleeping bag) or lodges. The help of local researchers, guides, cooks, and porters are invaluable for helping with expedition logistics.
What would a typical day involve?
Depending on the research question, day-to-day tasks could include: taking measurements of debris-thickness; measuring melt rates using stakes inserted into the glacier; measuring wind velocity, air temperature, debris temperature, water temperature, or the temperature at different depths in the debris-layer; taking lake depth measurements from a boat; setting up weather stations or downloading data; taking accurate GPS measurements of different features; taking photos of features to make Structure-from-Motion models; collecting snow samples on the glacier or surrounding mountains.