Articles | Volume 9, issue 1
Research article
16 Jan 2015
Research article |  | 16 Jan 2015

Thermal characteristics of permafrost in the steep alpine rock walls of the Aiguille du Midi (Mont Blanc Massif, 3842 m a.s.l)

F. Magnin, P. Deline, L. Ravanel, J. Noetzli, and P. Pogliotti

Abstract. Permafrost and related thermo-hydro-mechanical processes are thought to influence high alpine rock wall stability, but a lack of field measurements means that the characteristics and processes of rock wall permafrost are poorly understood. To help remedy this situation, in 2005 work began to install a monitoring system at the Aiguille du Midi (3842 m a.s.l). This paper presents temperature records from nine surface sensors (eight years of records) and three 10 m deep boreholes (4 years of records), installed at locations with different surface and bedrock characteristics. In line with previous studies, our temperature data analyses showed that: micro-meteorology controls the surface temperature, active layer thicknesses are directly related to aspect and ranged from <2 m to nearly 6 m, and that thin accumulations of snow and open fractures are cooling factors. Thermal profiles empirically demonstrated the coexistence within a single rock peak of warm and cold permafrost (about −1.5 to −4.5 °C at 10 m depth) and the resulting lateral heat fluxes. Our results also extended current knowledge of the effect of snow, in that we found similar thermo-insulation effects as reported for gentle mountain areas. Thick snow warms shaded areas, and may reduce active layer refreezing in winter and delay its thawing in summer. However, thick snow thermo-insulation has little effect compared to the high albedo of snow which leads to cooler conditions at the rock surface in areas exposed to the sun. A consistent inflection in the thermal profiles reflected the cooling effect of an open fracture in the bedrock, which appeared to act as a thermal cutoff in the sub-surface thermal regime. Our field data are the first to be obtained from an Alpine permafrost site where borehole temperatures are below −4 °C, and represent a first step towards the development of strategies to investigate poorly known aspects in steep bedrock permafrost such as the effects of snow cover and fractures.