Title

Active processes, morphology, and dynamics of icy debris fans: Landform evolution along rapidly degrading escarpments in alpine regions undergoing recent deglaciation

Publication Date

2012

Journal

Geomorphology

Volume

151

First Page

59

Last Page

76

Abstract

In the past few decades the impacts of climate warming have been significant in alpine glaciated regions. Many valley glaciers formerly linked as distributary glaciers to high-level icecaps have decoupled at their icefalls, exposing major escarpments and generating a suite of dynamic landforrns dominated by mass wasting. Ice-dominated landforms, here termed icy debris fans, develop rapidly by ice avalanching, rockfall, and icy debris flow. Field-based reconnaissance studies at two alpine settings, the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska and the Southern Alps of New Zealand, provide a preliminary morphogenetic model of spatial and temporal evolution of icy debris fans in a range of alpine settings. The influence of these processes on landform evolution is largely unrecognized in the literature dealing with post-glacial landform adjustment known as the paraglacial. A better understanding of these dynamic processes will be increasingly important because of the extreme geohazards characterizing these areas. Our field studies show that after glacier decoupling, icy debris fans begin to form along the base of bedrock escarpments at the mouths of catchments and prograde over valley glaciers. The presence of a distinct catchment, apex, and fan morphology distinguishes these landforms from other landforms common in periglacial hillslope settings receiving abundant clastic debris and ice. Ice avalanching is the most abundant process involved in icy debris fan formation. Fans developed below weakly incised catchments are dominated by ice avalanching and are composed primarily of ice with minor lithic detritus. Typically, avalanches fall into the fan catchments where sediments transform into grainflows that flow onto the fans. Once on the fans, avalanche deposits ablate rapidly, flattening and concentrating lithic fragments at the surface. Icy debris fans may become thick enough to become glaciers with splay crevasse systems. Fans developed below larger, more complex catchments are composed of higher proportions of lithic detritus resulting from temporary storage of ice and lithic detritus deposits within the catchment. Episodic outbursts of meltwater from the icecap may mix with the stored sediments and mobilize icy debris flows (mixture of ice and lithic clasts) onto the fans. Our observations indicate that the entire evolutionary cycle of icy debris fans probably occurs during an early paraglacial interval (i.e., decades to 100 years). Observations comparing avalanche frequency, volume, and fan morphologic evolution at the Alaska site between 2006 and 2010 illustrate complex response between icy debris fans even within the same cirque - where one fan may be growing while others are downwasting because of differences in ice supply controlled by their respective catchments and icecap contributions. As ice supply from the icecap diminishes through time, icy debris fans rapidly downwaste and eventually evolve into talus cones that receive occasional but ephemeral ice avalanches.

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