Spatiotemporal supraglacial pond and ice cliff changes in the Bhutan–Tibet border region from 2016 to 2018


Supraglacial ponds and ice cliffs can dramatically enhance ablation rates on debris-covered glaciers. Supraglacial ponds can also coalesce, forming moraine-dammed lakes at risk of glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). Given Bhutanese glaciers have some of the highest ice loss rates in the Himalaya and GLOF vulnerability is high, we seek to advance our understanding of the spatial distribution and evolution of supraglacial ponds and ice cliffs. Here, we use high-resolution (3 m) Planet Labs satellite imagery to provide the first short-term, high-resolution dataset of supraglacial pond and ice cliff evolution for three glaciers along the Bhutan–Tibet border from 2016 to 2018. A total of 5754 ponds and 2088 ice cliffs were identified. Large intra-annual changes were observed, with ponded area changes and drainage events coinciding with the seasonality of the Indian Summer Monsoon. On average, ~19% of the total number of ponds had a coincident ice cliff. Pond spatial distribution was driven by ice-surface velocities, with higher numbers of ponds found in areas of low velocity (textless8 m a−1). Our study provides the first detailed, quantitative investigation of supraglacial ponds and ice cliffs in Bhutan, providing a framework for further monitoring in this understudied, yet important, region of the Himalaya.

Journal of Glaciology