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Earth Surface Dynamics An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Submitted as: research article 09 Mar 2020

Submitted as: research article | 09 Mar 2020

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This preprint is currently under review for the journal ESurf.

Current glacier recession causes significant rockfall increase: The immediate paraglacial response of deglaciating cirque walls

Ingo Hartmeyer1, Robert Delleske1, Markus Keuschnig1, Michael Krautblatter2, Andreas Lang3, Lothar Schrott4, and Jan-Christoph Otto3 Ingo Hartmeyer et al.
  • 1GEORESEARCH Research Institute, Wals, 5071, Austria
  • 2Chair of Landslide Research, Technical University of Munich, Munich, 80333, Germany
  • 3Department of Geography and Geology, University of Salzburg, Salzburg, 5020, Austria
  • 4Department of Geography, University of Bonn, Bonn, 53115, Germany

Abstract. In the European Alps almost half the glacier volume disappeared over the past 150 years. The loss is reflected in glacier retreat and ice surface lowering even at high altitude. In steep glacial cirques surface lowering exposes rock to atmospheric conditions for the very first time in many millennia. Instability of rockwalls has long been identified as one of the direct consequences of deglaciation, but so far cirque-wide quantification of rockfall at high-resolution is missing. Based on terrestrial LiDAR a rockfall inventory for the permafrost-affected rockwalls of two rapidly deglaciating cirques in the Central Alps of Austria (Kitzsteinhorn) is established. Over six-years (2011–2017) 78 rockwall scans were acquired to generate data of high spatial and temporal resolution. 632 rockfalls were registered ranging from 0.003 to 879.4 m³, mainly originating from pre-existing structural rock weaknesses. 60 % of the rockfall volume detached from less than ten vertical meters above the glacier surface, indicating enhanced rockfall activity over tens of years following deglaciation. Debuttressing seems to play a minor effect only. Rather, preconditioning is assumed to start inside the Randkluft (gap between cirque wall and glacier) where sustained freezing and ample supply of liquid water likely cause enhanced physical weathering and high plucking stresses. Following deglaciation, pronounced thermomechanical strain is induced and an active layer penetrates into the formerly perennially frozen bedrock. These factors likely cause the observed paraglacial rockfall increase close to the glacier surface. This paper presents the most extensive dataset of high-alpine rockfall to date and the first systematic documentation of a cirque-wide erosion response of glaciated rockwalls to recent climate warming.

Ingo Hartmeyer et al.

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Ingo Hartmeyer et al.

Data sets

Rockfall Source Areas, Kitzsteinhorn, Austria (2011-2017) I. Hartmeyer, R. Delleske, M. Keuschnig, and M. Krautblatter

Ingo Hartmeyer et al.


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Latest update: 03 Apr 2020
Publications Copernicus
Short summary
Climate warming is causing significant ice surface lowering even in the uppermost parts of alpine glaciers. Using terrestrial LiDAR we quantify rockfall in freshly exposed cirque walls. During six-year monitoring (2011–17) an extensive dataset was established and over 600 rockfall events identified. Drastically increased rockfall activity following ice retreat can clearly be observed as 60 % of the rockfall volume detached from less than ten meters above the glacier surface.
Climate warming is causing significant ice surface lowering even in the uppermost parts of...