Glaciers and City Buses

Central and southern portion of Heard Island, including Gotley glacier.  Image credit: NASA ISS.
Central and southern portion of Heard Island, including Gotley glacier. Image credit: NASA ISS

Heard Island is covered by 41 glaciers.[1] Some of these glaciers, such as Stephenson Glacier, are retreating rapidly, while others, like Gotley glacier in the southwest, have remained steady since 1947 when detailed surveys began.

The glaciers on Heard Island, like glaciers everywhere, act much like a conveyor belt, a giant river of ice. Snow (and rain) falling near the top solidifies into ice and flows downhill, until either the ice melts and flows away as a stream, or the ice meets the ocean and calves (breaks away).

Unlike the conveyor belt analogy, the snow does not only fall at the very head. Indeed, at times, the whole glacier can receive snow, or could be melting at the surface. On average, though, the snow accumulates in the eponymous accumulation region, and melts in the depletion region.

Perhaps a better analogy for a glacier is not a conveyor belt, but a city bus which runs into, and through, a city. Toward the beginning of the route, people board the bus, but very few leave. In the middle of the city, some people come and others go. Finally, as the bus leaves the city toward the surrounding area, more people leave than get on, and after reaching the end of the route, the bus is empty of passengers.

To really get a grasp of how glaciers work, you might want to try this Java-based simulation (helpful activity guide). One aspect of glaciers that becomes apparent in the simulation is that the surface of a glacier moves more rapidly than its base. There’s a tool to let you drill a virtual hole in the ice, then watch as the hole gets stretched out as the glacier flows downhill.

Now that you’ve spent a while playing around with the simulation—I certainly have—let’s take a look at the glaciers of Heard Island.

As I mentioned before, some glaciers are retreating, while others are relatively unchanged. Several factors influence the size of glaciers: precipitation amount, freezing level (of the atmosphere) [generally related to sea level surface temperature], relative humidity, albedo (reflectivity), and the thickness of rocky debris cover.

Precipitation and the freezing level are fairly straightforward factors: more snow and cooler temperatures yield larger glaciers. But there are complications! In a windy environment, such as that of Heard Island, snow doesn’t just pile up evenly as it falls; it drifts. Snow that falls in one place may end up being picked up by the wind and deposited somewhere downwind. This effectively adds precipitation to downwind areas, and removes it from upwind areas.

Relative humidity is important to glacier size, because even cold, dry air can cause snow and ice to sublimate—turning directly from solid to gas. In places like the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, this effect keeps the valleys from filling with snow and ice. On Heard Island, a shift in the wind, or a more steady wind direction, can cause different areas to be affected by these dry winds, or to be affected more than in years past.

Here are some of Ruddell’s comments on the matter of why some glaciers are retreating and others do not:[1]

The accumulation, distribution and snowline elevation on many Heard Island glaciers appears to be influenced strongly by the re-distribution of snow by the wind. The prevailing wind direction is westerly and there is less likely to be a re-distribution of snow to low elevations on the westerly facing glaciers… Further, the re-distribution of snow by wind on west-facing glaciers is likely to be impeded not only by wind speed and direction but by severe crevassing (e.g., Gotley Glacier).

When the Heard Island expedition arrives this (austral) November, the glaciers can be observed from close range, rather than by satellite. An additional topic of interest is documenting the advance of vegetation toward recently de-glaciated areas.

During the 1947-2000 period, the glaciers on Heard Island showed an overall reduction in area of 12%.[1] The trend has been toward retreat, and with temperatures increasing about 0.8 °C since 1947, the glacier areal coverage in 2015 is almost certain to be lower still.

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[1] Ruddell, A. “An inventory of present glaciers on Heard Island and their historical variation”, in Heard Island: Southern Ocean Sentinel (Eds K. Green and E. Woehler) Surrey Beatey & Sons, 2006, p. 28-51.

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