The effect of sediment on hydrological and biogeochemical connectivity of glaciers within the McMurdo Dry Valley ecosystem, Antarctica

TitleThe effect of sediment on hydrological and biogeochemical connectivity of glaciers within the McMurdo Dry Valley ecosystem, Antarctica
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsBergstrom, AJ, Gooseff, MN
Date Published2020
UniversityUniversity of Colorado Boulder
CityBoulder, CO
Thesis Typedoctoral
Keywordsglaciers, LTER, McMurdo Dry Valleys, meltwater, sediment

Glaciers are an integral part of polar and alpine landscapes, providing water, inorganic, and organic material subsidies to downstream ecosystems. These subsides regulate downstream temperature, streamflow, and sediment supplies. Warming in high altitude and high latitude environments due to climate change is resulting in rapid and substantial mass loss of glaciers. In order to better predict impacts and future change to glaciers and downstream environments, we endeavor to better understand glacier physical and biogeochemical processes. Glaciers in the McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDVs) of Antarctica are very sensitive to slight changes in the energy balance. Small temperature or solar radiation increases can result in outsize increases in glacier melt, which is the main source of water for the MDV ecosystem. Sediment on the glacier surface is thought to be a key factor driving both melt and biogeochemical cycling on glaciers. This dissertation examines the distribution of sediment on the MDVs glacier surfaces, how it may have driven recent glacier morphological change, and identifies sediment-driven biogeochemical processes on the MDV glaciers. To do so, we carried out field data collection, field- and lab-based nutrient uptake experiments, geospatial analysis, and coupled sediment and energy balance modeling. We find that the glacier surfaces have changed in response to recent warm events by increasing roughness and the density of meltwater channels on the glacier surface. The increase in roughness occurred in already rough areas that serve as collection points for wind- and water-transported sediment. The rough surfaces and sediment have low albedo and can absorb a higher amount of energy, spurring additional melt. The distribution of sediment on the surface and in the top meter of ice is a reflection of patterns of wind deposition and seasonal melt on the glacier. The total amount of sediment in the top meter of ice agrees with previously measured rates of sediment deposition and follows a valley-wide pattern. The depth of the peak sediment concentration in the top meter of ice is a function of the thermal history of the glacier– both summer energy balance and winter sublimation rates. We also find that the biota living in the sediment is capable of removing nutrients from glacier melt water, modulating the amount and form of nutrients delivered to downstream ecosystems. This research clarifies the role of glaciers within the larger MDV ecosystem. It also advances our understanding of surficial glacier melt and biogeochemistry, which can improve predictions of how the functional role of glaciers within their larger ecosystems will evolve due to climate change.