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Some glaciers in Alaska aren’t melting the way scientists expect, but why?

University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers are hoping to find that out.
Updated: Jun. 10, 2021 at 4:49 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - As the climate changes In the arctic and glaciers continue to melt, the scientific oddity of debris-covered glaciers is being investigated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

“I’m a glaciologist. So I study glaciers, in particular what are called debris-covered glaciers,” said UAF Post Doctoral Researcher Eric Peterson. “These are glaciers that have a significant rocky covering on their surface, particularly toward their lower extremities.”

Debris-covered glaciers are expected to melt at a slower rate than clean glaciers, which are not covered by debris. These debris-covered glaciers have a thick layer of rock that insulates the ice from hot summer temperatures. However, studies do not support this expectation.

Peterson and his fellow researchers are trying to determine why, “I’m working on a field project to investigate one of these debris-covered glaciers in the Wrangell mountains near McCarthy, Alaska. We set up a number of instruments to measure the weather conditions over the glacier, the melt that we observe throughout the summer months, and instruments to measure the thermodynamics of the debris on top of the glacier ice.”

One of the possible reasons that debris-covered glaciers are receding at a similar rate to unshielded glaciers is the presence of tall ice cliffs that might act as melt hotspots.

“There’s a number of ways that these cliffs might form. One of them is through crevassing. Many of us have seen the crevasses open up in a glacier, and that’s basically two big ice walls. If one melts back all the way, that leaves you with your ice cliff. That’s one major hypothesis. Another major hypothesis is that there are big streams that are flowing down the surface of these glaciers, and these streams can carve valleys into the ice similar to valleys that they carve into soil and sediment on land valleys,” Peterson said.

Through further study, Peterson and his team hop to continue unearthing the secrets of this glacial mystery.

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