Structual Control of Englacial Drainage Systems in Himalayan Debris-Covered Glaciers

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Englacial cave systems were mapped using speleological techniques in three debris-covered glaciers in the Khumbu Himal, Nepal. Detailed three-dimensional mapping of the cave systems and observations of relationships with structures in the surrounding ice show conduits formed by a mechanism directly analogous to speleogenesis in limestone karst. The highest, oldest parts of all passages developed along debris-filled crevasse traces with hydraulic conductivity in the range 10(-4) to 10(-5) m s(-1). Conduits form when these hydraulically efficient pathways bridge between areas with different hydraulic potential. They then evolve by grading (through head-ward migration of nick points and vertical incision) to local base level, often the surface of supraglacial lakes. Most supraglacial lakes on Himalayan glaciers are perched above the elevation of the terminal stream, and exist for a few years before draining through englacial conduits. As a result, near-surface drainage evolution is frequently interrupted by base-level fall, and conduits may record multiple phases of incision. Conduits commonly migrate laterally during incision, undermining higher levels of the ice and encouraging collapse. Voids can be created by fluvial processes and collapse of crevassed ice. The oft-noted resemblance of the surface morphology of debris-covered glaciers to karst landscapes thus extends to the subsurface, and karst hydrology provides a framework for understanding englacial drainage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-412
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Glaciology
Issue number182
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2007


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