May 10, 2016

Glacier Nef, Patagonia, Chile retreat 1987-2016.

Posted by Mauri Pelto

nef compare

Comparison of 1987 and 2015 Landsat images of Nef Glacier at right and Cachet Glacier at left.  Indicating retreat of Nef Glacier from red arrows to yellow arrows of 1.8 km and development of a new lake at the terminus. Purple arrows indicate upglacier thinning leading to separation of glacier tributaries. 

Glacier retreat and thinning is particularly strong in the Patagonian icefields of South America. The two largest temperate ice bodies of the Southern Hemisphere are the Northern Patagonia Icefield 4,000 km2 and the Southern Patagonia Icefield, 13,000 km2. It has been estimated that the wastage of the two icefields from 1995–2000 has contributed to sea level rise by 0.105 ± 0.011 mm year,which is double the ice loss calculated for 1975-2000 (Rignot et al. 2003).   Davies and Glasser (2012) work, has an excellent figure indicating two periods of fastest recession since 1870, are 1975-1986 and 2001-2011 for NPI glaciers, which suggests that ice volume loss increased after 2000. They noted the loss was 0.07% from 1870-1986, 0.14% annually from 1986-2001 and 0.22% annually from 2001-2011. Glasser et al (2011) find the recent ice volume rate loss is an order of magnitude faster than at other time intervals since the Little Ice Age. Baker River (Rio Baker) is located to the east of the Northern Patagonia Icefield and is fed mainly by glacier melt water originating from the eastern outlet glaciers of the icefield Leones, Soler, Nef, Colonia. Rio Baker is the most important Chilean river in terms of runoff, with an annual mean discharge of about 1000 m3/s Lopez and Casassa (2009). Glacier Nef is one of the main glaciers feeding Rio Baker. Rio Baker was a proposed critical hydropower resource for Chile. Hidroaysen Project had proposed 5 dams on the Baker and Pascua River generating 2750 MW of power, all three proposed dams on the Rio Baker have been cancelled.

Glacier Nef began to retreat into a moraine dammed proglacial lake in 1945 (Loriaux and Casassa, 2014). By 1987 the lake remained less than 1 km long, with glacier thinning predominating over retreat. From 1987 to 2015 the glacier has retreated 1.8 km calving into the growing lake.  The lake width was essentially uniform during this phase of retreat There is not significant retreat from 2015 to 2016. The lake is currently about 5.4 square kilometers and has a mean depth of ~125 m (Loriaux and Casassa, 2014).  In 2015 Glacier Nef has not reached the head of this proglacial lake and will continue to retreat. The west side of the terminus is debris covered and has a fringing proglacial lake that has developed after 2000 and will aid in the continuing retreat. The terminus is currently at a pinning point, where the valley is constricted providing greater terminus stability. Further retreat will lead to an expansion of the embayment and calving front, leading to a further increase in glacier retreat. The lack of elevation change of the lower glacier and the isolated proglacial lake here suggests the lake will expand laterally as well as in length. The debris cover is slowing the thinning and retreat of the western margin. The purple arrows indicate thinning upglacier in a former tributary glacier. The 2016 Landsat image indicates a high snowline at 1350 m, purple dots.  Willis et al (2011) observed that the thinning rate of NPI glaciers below the equilibrium line has increased substantially from 2000-2012, partly an indication of a higher snowline indicative of greater ablation and a longer snow free period lower in the ablation zone. For example on Nef Glacier by January 8, 2016  the snowline was at 1300 m and remained high up until at least the mid-march image below. The retreat follows the pattern of enhanced calving in a proglacial lake for NPI glaciers such as Gualas GlacierReichert Glacier, Steffen Glacier, and Colonia Glacier.
nef 2016

2016 Landsat image of Nef Glacier indicating terminus yellow arrow and source of the debris for the debris covered terminus. 

nef terminus

Closeup of Nef Terminus from Chile Topographic Application.  Notice the widening valley just above terminus.  Debris cover is insulating ice on west side of terminus.