Resolving Enthalpy Budget to Understand Surging (REBUS)

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Geography and Sustainable Development


Glacier surges are transient and spectacular events, in which slow-moving glaciers transition into a fast-flowing, heavily crevassed state, with velocities up to several kilometres per year. Surges are unpredictable and most are well underway before detection, making it very hard to observe the crucial transition from slow to fast states. Consequently, there are few observations that allow rigorous testing of alternative theories of glacier surging. Kongsvegen (The King's Highway) is a glacier in Svalbard which last surged in 1948, since when it has been melting in its lower reaches and building up snow in its upper parts. GPS measurements by the Norwegian Polar Institute have detected an acceleration from 6 m per year (2004-2013) to 12 m per year (2016-2017). Although ice motion is still slow, it is clear that the transition to a surge has begun, providing a rare opportunity to understand the earliest stages of a surge and the processes that underlie this enigmatic behaviour.

The REBUS project aims to conduct detailed measurements on Kongsvegen and use the data to test a new theory of glacier surges. The theory is based on the enthalpy (internal energy) budget of the glacier. Stated simply: in the long term glaciers need to find a balance between rates of ice flow and enthalpy gains and losses at the bed. Ice flow creates frictional heating at the bed of the glacier, which increases its enthalpy content (heat and water). Because heat and water cause more rapid ice flow, they must be able to escape from the bed as fast as they are produced, or the glacier will accelerate. "Normal" glaciers are able to find the right balance, whereas surge-type glaciers must undergo cyclic swings in mass and energy content. To test enthalpy theory, the REBUS project has three objectives: (1) Measure ongoing and recent geometric and dynamic evolution of the glacier; (2) Quantify the enthalpy budget of the glacier; and (3) Model the key processes governing surge evolution. Field data will be collected in spring 2018, including: installing instruments within and beneath the ice to monitor heat and water content; and conducting ground-penetrating radar surveys of the glacier bed. Glacier velocities will be measured using satellite image analysis and high-precision GPS instruments. The observations will provide input for a state-of-the art computer model of glacier dynamics, which will be used to test detailed predictions of enthalpy theory.

Planned Impact

The REBUS project will directly benefit the local community in Svalbard. Kongsvegen glacier is an important snowmobile route in the winter months, and any changes in glacier dynamics can alter the location of crevasse fields and create serious hazards. Monitoring of the changing velocity structure of the glacier through our satellite data acquisitions will enable us to provide regular glacier hazard information for the Svalbard Governor's Office, tour companies and local people, in collaboration with Project Partners Kohler and Borstad.

We will also disseminate information about glacier surges and their impact to the public and school children. Our colleague and former PhD student Heidi Sevestre is currently developing an exhibit on glacier surging for the Svalbard Museum in Longyearbyen ( Svalbard Museum receives thousands of visits from tourists annually, and is an important source of public information on Arctic life and environmental change. We will contribute visual and written materials on the REBUS project to the exhibit, including online resources.

Schools outreach will be achieved through the St Andrews GeoBus project, by expanding the scope of existing impact activities in the NERC-funded CALISMO project (Calving Laws for Ice Sheet Models: NE/P011365/1). In collaboration with GeoBus personnel funded through CALISMO, we will develop class activities on glacier surges to complement packages on glacier calving and sea-level rise.


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Description Using data obtained in REBUS and earlier work, we have developed and tested a new theory of glacier 'surges' or episodic periods of abnormally fast flow. A paper describing the theory, and a second paper testing it against data from a glacier in Svalbard, have been published in Journal of Glaciology. Additional papers are in preparation.
Exploitation Route The theory has had high impact within the glaciological community, and also those interested in the dynamic response of glaciers to climate change. The paper describing the theory has attracted 22 citations since its publication in October 2019, the paper presenting a detailed case study has 11.

I am now working on applying the theory to understanding the relationship between glaciers and climate during the Lateglacial period in Scotland, and a paper is currently in review. I am now in the early stages of developing funding applications with potential collaborators.
Sectors Education,Environment

Title Kongsvegen, Svalbard: late quiescent-stage glacier geometry and dynamics 
Description This dataset consists of a bed DEM and four velocity maps of Kongsvegen, a surge-type glacier in Svalbard. The bed DEM was generated from ground-penetrating radar surveys in spring 2016 and 2018, and the velocity maps span the period Dec 2017 to Feb 2019. The velocity maps show the initial speed-up of the glacier as it transitions from quiescence to surge. Data acquisition was funded by NERC Urgency Grant NE/R018243/1 REBUS (Resolving Enthalpy Budget to Understand Surges). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes