Seasonal and Interannual Variability of Columbia Glacier, Alaska (2011–2016): Ice Velocity, Mass Flux, Surface Elevation and Front Position
Alaskan glaciers are among the largest contributors to sea-level rise outside the polar ice sheets. The contributions include dynamic discharge from marine-terminating glaciers which depends on the seasonally variable ice velocity. Columbia Glacier is a large marine-terminating glacier located in Southcentral Alaska that has been exhibiting pronounced retreat since the early 1980s. Since 2010, the glacier has split into two branches, the main branch and the west branch. We derived a 5-year record of surface velocity, mass flux (ice discharge), surface elevation and changes in front position using a dense time series of TanDEM-X synthetic aperture radar data (2011–2016). We observed distinct seasonal velocity patterns at both branches. At the main branch, the surface velocity peaked during late winter to midsummer but reached a minimum between late summer and fall. Its near-front velocity reached up to 14 m day−1 in May 2015 and was at its lowest speed of ~1 m day−1 in October 2012. Mass flux via the main branch was strongly controlled by the seasonal and interannual fluctuations of its velocity. The west branch also exhibited seasonal velocity variations with comparably lower magnitudes. The role of subglacial hydrology on the ice velocities of Columbia Glacier is already known from the published field measurements during summers of 1987. Our observed variability in its ice velocities on a seasonal basis also suggest that they are primarily controlled by the seasonal transition of the subglacial drainage system from an inefficient to an efficient and channelized drainage networks. However, abrupt velocity increase events for short periods (2014–2015 and 2015–2016 at the main branch, and 2013–2014 at the west branch) appear to be associated with strong near-front thinning and frontal retreat. This needs further investigation on the role of other potential controlling mechanisms. On the technological side, this study demonstrates the potential of high-resolution X-band SAR missions with a short revisit interval to examine glaciological variables and controlling processes.