Deglaciation Dynamics of the Feegletscher Nord, Switzerland: Implications for Glacio-Fluvial Sediment Transfer
Smart, Martin James
Understanding of the processes of sediment transfer within, and from, glaciated catchments is of fundamental importance in order to establish rates of sediment transfer and resultant landscape evolution. Rates of glacio-fluvial sediment transfer are strongly controlled by glacier meltwater runoff and the availability of sediments for entrainment. However, it is becoming apparent that recently deglaciated forefields can modify the patterns of suspended sediment transfer. Glacier shrinkage exposes areas of unstable glacigenic sediments that can be subject to reworking and redistribution, and, as these environments become ice-free, heightened levels of geomorphological activity (so-called ‘paraglacial’ activity) are also likely to have a significant impact on both sediment and water yields from deglaciating catchments. Consequently, questions are raised as to the impacts of deglaciation upon contemporary and future rates of suspended sediment transfer, and the resultant fluvial sediments loads and rates of landscape adjustment. Therefore, the aim of this research was to present an integrated study of how sediment transfer in a glaciated catchment functions during, and is responding to, deglaciation. A variety of techniques were employed to examine the hydrological functioning of an Alpine glacier, the Feegletscher Nord, Switzerland, and the resultant temporal and spatial patterns of sediment transfer in light of catchment hydrology, ablation processes and forefield geomorphology. Data was collected over two field campaigns in 2010 and 2012 to capture the inputs, throughputs and outputs of meltwater and sediment. This research found that patterns of sediment transfer were modified within the proglacial zone, reinforcing previous findings that the location of proglacial monitoring is important in determining the observed patterns of sediment transfer. These patterns of sediment transfer were attributed to variations in forefield sediment availability, which appeared to demonstrate marked spatial variability. This variability was hypothesised to be influenced by the geomorphological characteristics of the forefield, including rock fall debris that appeared to limit sediment availability, and glacigenic sediment deposits that enhanced the availability of in-channel and channel-marginal sediments. These findings suggest that the investigation of rates of sediment transfer and paraglacial sedimentation may be complicated in catchments that have experienced complex geomorphological responses to deglaciation. In addition, the investigation of sediment transfer processes and the development of a glacier runoff model enabled the exploration of future suspended sediment loads with progressive deglaciation and a changing climate. Suspended sediment loads were predicted to experience rapid declines until the end of the 21st Century due to reductions in meltwater runoff as glacier extent is reduced. However, it is suggested that uncertainties in future sediment availability limit the usefulness of such forecasts. Consequently, this research highlights how the understanding of both sedimentary and hydrological processes in glaciated catchments may be enhanced by consideration of the changes that can occur in these environments associated with glacier shrinkage and a changing climate.