The seasonal evolution of albedo across glaciers and the surrounding landscape of Taylor Valley, Antarctica

TitleThe seasonal evolution of albedo across glaciers and the surrounding landscape of Taylor Valley, Antarctica
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsBergstrom, AJ, Gooseff, MN, Myers, M, Doran, PT, Cross, JM
JournalThe Cryosphere
Date Published03/2020

The McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDVs) of Antarctica are a polar desert ecosystem consisting of alpine glaciers, ice-covered lakes, streams, and expanses of vegetation-free rocky soil. Because average summer temperatures are close to 0 ∘C, the MDV ecosystem in general, and glacier melt dynamics in particular, are both closely linked to the energy balance. A slight increase in incoming radiation or change in albedo can have large effects on the timing and volume of meltwater. However, the seasonal evolution or spatial variability of albedo in the valleys has yet to fully characterized. In this study, we aim to understand the drivers of landscape albedo change within and across seasons. To do so, a box with a camera, GPS, and shortwave radiometer was hung from a helicopter that flew transects four to five times a season along Taylor Valley. Measurements were repeated over three seasons. These data were coupled with incoming radiation measured at six meteorological stations distributed along the valley to calculate the distribution of albedo across individual glaciers, lakes, and soil surfaces. We hypothesized that albedo would decrease throughout the austral summer with ablation of snow patches and increasing sediment exposure on the glacier and lake surfaces. However, small snow events (<6 mm water equivalent) coupled with ice whitening caused spatial and temporal variability of albedo across the entire landscape. Glaciers frequently followed a pattern of increasing albedo with increasing elevation, as well as increasing albedo moving from east to west laterally across the ablation zone. We suggest that spatial patterns of albedo are a function of landscape morphology trapping snow and sediment, longitudinal gradients in snowfall magnitude, and wind-driven snow redistribution from east to west along the valley. We also compare our albedo measurements to the MODIS albedo product and found that overall the data have reasonable agreement. The mismatch in spatial scale between these two datasets results in variability, which is reduced after a snow event due to albedo following valley-scale gradients of snowfall magnitude. These findings highlight the importance of understanding the spatial and temporal variability in albedo and the close coupling of climate and landscape response. This new understanding of landscape albedo can constrain landscape energy budgets, better predict meltwater generation on from MDV glaciers, and how these ecosystems will respond to changing climate at the landscape scale.