Snow evolution through meltwater percolation and compaction

23 October 2020
Colin Meyer

Snow densification and meltwater refreezing store water in alpine regions and transform snow into ice on the surface of glaciers. Despite their importance in determining snow-water equivalent and glacier-induced sea level rise, we still lack a complete understanding of the physical mechanisms underlying snow compaction and the infiltration of meltwater into snowpacks. Here we (i) analyze snow compaction experiments as a promising direction for determining the rheology of snow though its many stages of densification and (ii) solve for the motion of refreezing fronts and for the temperature increase due to the release of latent heat, which we compare to temperature observations from the Greenland Ice Sheet (Humphrey et al., 2012). In the first part, we derive a mixture theory for compaction and air flow through the porous snow (cf. Hewitt et al. 2016) to compare against laboratory data (Wang and Baker, 2013). We find that a plastic compaction law explains experimental results. Taking standard forms for the permeability and effective pressure as functions of the porosity, we show that this compaction mode persists for a range of densities and overburden loads (Meyer et al., 2020). We motivate the second part of the talk by the observed melting at high elevations on the Greenland Ice Sheet, which causes the refreezing layers that are observed in ice cores. Our analysis shows that as surface temperatures increase, the capacity for meltwater storage in snow decreases and surface runoff increases leading to sea level rise (Meyer and Hewitt, 2017). Together these studies provide a holistic picture for how snow changes through compaction and the role of meltwater percolation in altering the temperature and density structure of surface snow.

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  • Mathematical Geoscience Seminar