11 Oct 2023
 | 11 Oct 2023
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

A climate-driven, altitudinal transition in rock glacier dynamics detected through integration of geomorphological mapping and InSAR-based kinematics

Aldo Bertone, Nina Jones, Volkmar Mair, Riccardo Scotti, Tazio Strozzi, and Francesco Brardinoni

Abstract. In dry southwestern South Tyrol, Italy, rock glaciers are dominant landforms of the high-mountain cryosphere. Their spatial distribution and degree of activity hold critical information on the past and current state of discontinuous permafrost, and consequently on response potential to climate warming. Traditional geomorphologic mapping, however, owing to the qualitative expert-based nature, typically displays a high degree of uncertainty and variability among operators with respect to the dynamic classification of intact (permafrost bearing) and relict (permafrost devoid) rock glaciers. This limits the reliability of geomorphologic rock glacier inventories for basic and applied purposes. To address this limitation: (i) we conduct a systematic evaluation of the improvements that InSAR-based information can afford to the detection and dynamic classification of rock glaciers; and (ii) build an integrated inventory that wishes to combine the strengths of geomorphologic- and InSAR-based approaches. To exploit fully InSAR-based information towards a better understanding of the topo-climatic conditions that sustain creeping permafrost, we further explore how velocity and the spatial distribution of moving areas (MAs) within rock glaciers may vary as a function of simple topographic variables known to exert first-order controls on incoming solar radiation, such as elevation and aspect. Starting from the compilation of a geomorphologic inventory (n = 789), we characterize the kinematics of InSAR-based MAs and the relevant hosting rock glaciers on thirty-six Sentinel-1 interferograms computed over 6- through 342-day baselines in the 2018–19 period. With respect to the original inventory, InSAR analysis allowed identifying 14 previously undetected rock glaciers. Further, it confirmed that 246 (76 %) landforms, originally interpreted as intact, do exhibit detectable movement (i.e., ≥1 cm yr-1), and that 270 (60 %) of the relict labelled counterparts do not, whereas 144 (18 %) resulted kinematically undefined due to decorrelation. Most importantly, InSAR proved critical for reclassifying 121 (15 %) rock glaciers, clarifying that 41 (13 %) of those interpreted as intact, do not exhibit detectable movement, and that 80 (17 %) of the original relict ones do actually move. Reclassification, by increasing the altitudinal overlap between intact and relict rock glaciers depicts a broad transition belt in the aspect-elevation space, the amplitude of which varies from as little as 50 m on west facing slopes to a maximum of 500 m on easterly ones. This finding deteriorates the significance of elevation and aspect as topographic proxies for modelling permafrost occurrence, and highlights the importance of using InSAR for informing such models. From a process-oriented standpoint, InSAR information proves fundamental for imaging how this altitudinal transition manifests through changing rates and styles of rock glacier surface deformation. Specifically, we find that as rock glaciers move faster, an increasingly larger proportion of their surface becomes kinematically involved (i.e., percent MA cover), and that this proportion increases with elevation up to the 2600–2800 m, beyond which an inflection occurs and consistent average values are attained. Considering that the inflection falls between the -1 °C and -2 °C MAAT – the lower boundary for discontinuous permafrost – and is independent of slope gradient, we conclude that this altitudinal pattern represents a geomorphic signature: the dynamic expression of increasing permafrost distribution (i.e., from sporadic to discontinuous), until optimal thermal conditions are reached.

Aldo Bertone et al.

Status: open (until 30 Dec 2023)

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Aldo Bertone et al.

Aldo Bertone et al.


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Short summary
Traditional inventories display high uncertainty at discriminating between intact (permafrost-bearing) and relict (-devoid) rock glaciers (RGs). Integration of InSAR-based kinematics in South Tyrol affords uncertainty reduction and depicts a broad elevation belt of relict-intact coexistence. RG velocity and moving area (MA) cover increase linearly with elevation up to an inflection at 2600–2800 m asl, which we regard as a signature of sporadic-to-discontinuous permafrost transition.