Impact of impurities and cryoconite on the optical properties of the Morteratsch Glacier (Swiss Alps)
Abstract. The amount of reflected energy by snow and ice plays a fundamental role in their melting processes. Different non-ice materials (carbonaceous particles, mineral dust (MD), microorganisms, algae, etc.) can decrease the reflectance of snow and ice promoting the melt. The object of this paper is to assess the capability of field and satellite (EO-1 Hyperion) hyperspectral data to characterize the impact of light-absorbing impurities (LAIs) on the surface reflectance of ice and snow of the Vadret da Morteratsch, a large valley glacier in the Swiss Alps. The spatial distribution of both narrow-band and broad-band indices derived from Hyperion was analyzed in relation to ice and snow impurities. In situ and laboratory reflectance spectra were acquired to characterize the optical properties of ice and cryoconite samples. The concentrations of elemental carbon (EC), organic carbon (OC) and levoglucosan were also determined to characterize the impurities found in cryoconite. Multi-wavelength absorbance spectra were measured to compare the optical properties of cryoconite samples and local moraine sediments. In situ reflectance spectra showed that the presence of impurities reduced ice reflectance in visible wavelengths by 80–90 %. Satellite data also showed the outcropping of dust during the melting season in the upper parts of the glacier, revealing that seasonal input of atmospheric dust can decrease the reflectance also in the accumulation zone of the glacier. The presence of EC and OC in cryoconite samples suggests a relevant role of carbonaceous and organic material in the darkening of the ablation zone. This darkening effect is added to that caused by fine debris from lateral moraines, which is assumed to represent a large fraction of cryoconite. Possible input of anthropogenic activity cannot be excluded and further research is needed to assess the role of human activities in the darkening process of glaciers observed in recent years.