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

Alpine headwall erosion: Insights from cosmogenic nuclide concentrations in supraglacial debris cover 

Katharina Wetterauer1, Dirk Scherler1,2, Leif S. Anderson1,3, and Hella Wittmann1
Katharina Wetterauer et al.
  • 1GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Potsdam, Germany (
  • 2Institute of Geological Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  • 3Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland

Debris-covered glaciers are fed from steep bedrock hillslopes that tower above the ice. These headwalls are eroded by rockfalls and rock avalanches, mobilizing fractured bedrock, which is subsequently deposited on the ice surface along the sides of valley glaciers and transported downglacier on and in the ice. Where glaciers join, marginal debris merges to form medial moraines. Due to the conveyor-belt-nature of glacier ablation zones, debris tends to be older downglacier and, for typical Alpine glaciers, single deposits may persist on the glacier surface for hundreds to a few thousand years.

Recent observations in high-alpine glacial environments suggest that rock walls are increasingly destabilized due to climate warming. An increase in headwall erosion and debris deposition onto glacier surfaces will modify glacial mass balances, as surface debris cover alters the rate at which underlying ice melts. Consequently, we expect that the response of debris-covered glaciers to climate change is likely also related to the response of headwalls to climate change.

In this context, we quantify headwall retreat rates by measuring the concentration of in situ-produced cosmogenic 10Be in debris samples collected from a partly debris-covered Swiss valley glacier. By systematic downglacier-sampling of two parallel medial moraines, we aim to assess changes in headwall erosion through time for small and delineated source areas. Our results indicate that indeed, nuclide concentrations along the medial moraines vary with time: downglacier and further back in time deposits have higher nuclide concentrations, whereas upglacier and more recently deposits have lower concentrations. Currently, we explore possible processes which could account for 10Be concentration changes through time, other than changes in erosion rates. These include the sensitivity of 10Be concentrations to supraglacial transport time and to temporal and spatial changes in nuclide production rates on the deglaciating headwalls. First analyses reveal, however, that neither the additional accumulation of 10Be during transport nor changes in source area production rates associated with the uncovering of formerly ice covered headwall parts alone can account for the observed trend.

How to cite: Wetterauer, K., Scherler, D., Anderson, L. S., and Wittmann, H.: Alpine headwall erosion: Insights from cosmogenic nuclide concentrations in supraglacial debris cover , EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-9369,, 2021.

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