EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

A complementary kinematic approach to inventory rock glaciers applied to case studies of the Swiss and Italian Alps

Aldo Bertone1,2, Chloé Barboux2, Francesco Brardinoni1, Reynald Delaloye2, Volkmar Mair3, Gabriel Pellegrinon1, Tania Monier2, and Tazio Strozzi4
Aldo Bertone et al.
  • 1Bologna, Department of Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences, Bologna, Italy (
  • 2Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
  • 3Ufficio Geologia e Prove Materiali, Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano, Italy
  • 4Gamma Remote Sensing, Switzerland

Rock glaciers are the best visual expression of creeping mountain permafrost. Their dynamics, which largely depend on climatic forcing, provide information about the mountain permafrost and may locally pose risk to infrastructures.

The International Permafrost Association (IPA) Action Group on Rock glacier inventories and kinematics, launched in 2018, fosters the activities of a research network focused on the definition of standardized guidelines for inventorying rock glaciers, including information on rock-glacier displacement rate. The ESA Permafrost_CCI project further sustains this initiative, and proposes a standardized method to implement kinematics-based rock glacier inventories.

The proposed method exploits interferometric data from spaceborne Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) to derive the kinematic information of existing or newly-compiled rock glacier inventories. In particular, areas identified as slope movements within rock glacier polygons are delineated on interferograms as “moving areas”, and are assigned a velocity class. Subsequently, a specific kinematic class is assigned to each rock glacier unit according to the velocity class and extension of the relevant moving areas.

This method is applied on two regions: the Western part of the Swiss Alps and the South-Western part of the South Tyrol (Italian Alps). Both are located at the same latitude, with rock glaciers in the Swiss part lying at slightly higher altitudes, and experiencing higher mean annual precipitation. Rock glacier polygons were drawn from existing inventories, the kinematic information was extracted exploiting InSAR data acquired between 2018 and 2019 from the Sentinel-1 constellation.

In the Swiss and Italian parts, we inventoried 660 and 783 moving areas (1443 in total). Collectively, it was possible to assign a kinematic attribute to 913 rock glaciers, providing a more objective and quantitative activity classification (compared to the qualitative active, inactive, and relict categories). In the Swiss part, 14% of the rock glaciers are moving in the magnitude order of a meter/year or faster, 43% in the magnitude order of one to several dm/yr, 36% from one to several cm/yr, the others are with unreliable movements (7%). In the Italian part, these percentages are 1% (meter/year or faster), 42% (one to several dm/yr), 39% (one to several cm/yr) and 18% (no reliable), respectively. Preliminary analyses on the Italian part are conducted on 467 additional rock glaciers recognized as geomorphologically relict: 68% are not moving or not moving fast enough to be detected, 9% have sectors moving up to several cm/yr, and the remaining 23% of relict rock glaciers have no reliable information on movement.

Preliminary results show how this approach allows to provide complementary kinematic information to the geomorphological approach, improving the knowledge on the activity status in a given time and in a given region. Since several studies have reported trends towards displacement acceleration, applying this approach over long periods will allow assessing the response of a wide selection of landforms to (warmer) climatic forcing. Furthermore, this approach is a very useful tool to help select representative rock glaciers of a region, on which to apply more accurate monitoring approaches.

How to cite: Bertone, A., Barboux, C., Brardinoni, F., Delaloye, R., Mair, V., Pellegrinon, G., Monier, T., and Strozzi, T.: A complementary kinematic approach to inventory rock glaciers applied to case studies of the Swiss and Italian Alps, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-14661,, 2021.

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