29 Mar 2021

29 Mar 2021

Review status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

Estimating surface mass balance patterns from UAV measurements on the ablation area of the Morteratsch-Pers glacier complex (Switzerland)

Lander Van Tricht1, Philippe Huybrechts1, Jonas Van Breedam1, Alexander Vanhulle1, Kristof Van Oost2, and Harry Zekollari3 Lander Van Tricht et al.
  • 1Earth System Science & Departement Geografie, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium
  • 2Georges Lemaître Center for Earth & Climate Research, Earth and Life Institute, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
  • 3Department of Geoscience and Remote Sensing, Delft University of Technology, Delft, Netherlands

Abstract. The surface mass balance of a glacier (SMB) provides the link between the glacier and the local climate. For this reason, it is intensively studied and monitored. However, major efforts are required to determine the SMB on a sufficient number of locations to capture the heterogeneity of the SMB pattern. Furthermore, because of the time-consuming and costly nature of these measurements, detailed SMB measurements are carried out on only a limited number of glaciers. In this study, we investigate how to accurately determine the SMB in the ablation zone of Vadret da Morteratsch and Vadret Pers (Engadin, Switzerland) using the continuity-equation method. For this, an elaborate dataset (spanning the 2017-2020 period) of high-resolution data derived from UAV measurements (surface elevation changes and surface velocities) is combined with reconstructed ice thickness fields (based on radar measurements). To determine the performance of the method, we compare modelled SMB with measured SMB values at the position of stakes. Our results indicate that with annual UAV surveys, it is possible to obtain SMB estimates with a mean absolute error of approximately 0.5 metre ice equivalent per year. Yet, our study demonstrates that in order to obtain these accuracies, it is necessary to consider the ice flow over spatial scales of several times the local ice thickness using an exponential decay filter. Furthermore, our study shows the crucial importance of the ice thickness, which must be sufficiently well known in order to apply the method. The latter currently hampers the application of the continuity-equation method to derive detailed SMB patterns on regional to global scales.

Lander Van Tricht et al.

Status: open (until 24 May 2021)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse

Lander Van Tricht et al.

Data sets

UAV created digital surface models Lander Van Tricht /

Model code and software

Model code written in MATLAB_R2020b Lander Van Tricht /

Lander Van Tricht et al.


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Short summary
We conducted an innovative research on the use of drones to determine the surface mass balance (SMB) of two glaciers. Considering appropriate spatial scales, we succeeded to determine the SMB on the ablation area with large accuracy. Consequently, we are convinced that our method and the use of drones to monitor the mass balance of a glacier’s ablation area can be an add-on to stake measurements in order to obtain a broader picture of the heterogeneity of the SMB of glaciers.