Enthalpy balance theory unifies diverse glacier surge behaviour

Douglas I. Benn*, Ian J. Hewitt, Adrian J. Luckman

*Corresponding author for this work

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It is commonly asserted that there are two distinct classes of glacier surges: slow, long-duration ‘Svalbard-type’ surges, triggered by a transition from cold- to warm-based conditions (thermal switching), and fast, shorter-duration ‘Alaska-type’ surges triggered by a reorganisation of the basal drainage system (hydraulic switching). This classification, however, reflects neither the diversity of surges in Svalbard and Alaska (and other regions), nor the fundamental dynamic processes underlying all surges. We argue that enthalpy balance theory offers a framework for understanding the spectrum of glacier surging behaviours while emphasising their essential dynamic unity. In this paper, we summarise enthalpy balance theory, illustrate its potential to explain so-called ‘Svalbard-type’ and ‘Alaska-type’ surges using a single set of principles, and show examples of a much wider range of glacier surge behaviour than previously observed. We then identify some future directions for research, including strategies for testing predictions of the theory against field and remote sensing data, and priorities for numerical model development.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)88-94
Number of pages7
JournalAnnals of Glaciology
Issue number87-89
Early online date17 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 17 Apr 2023


  • Glacier modelling
  • Glacier surges
  • Subglacial processes


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