Articles | Volume 4, issue 1
Earth Surf. Dynam., 4, 103–123, 2016
Earth Surf. Dynam., 4, 103–123, 2016

Research article 25 Jan 2016

Research article | 25 Jan 2016

Short-term velocity variations at three rock glaciers and their relationship with meteorological conditions

V. Wirz1, S. Gruber2, R. S. Purves1, J. Beutel3, I. Gärtner-Roer1, S. Gubler4, and A. Vieli1 V. Wirz et al.
  • 1Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 2Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
  • 3Computer Engineering and Networks Laboratory, ETH, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 4Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss, Zurich, Switzerland

Abstract. In recent years, strong variations in the speed of rock glaciers have been detected, raising questions about their stability under changing climatic conditions. In this study, we present continuous time series of surface velocities over 3 years of six GPS stations located on three rock glaciers in Switzerland. Intra-annual velocity variations are analysed in relation to local meteorological factors, such as precipitation, snow(melt), and air and ground surface temperatures. The main focus of this study lies on the abrupt velocity peaks, which have been detected at two steep and fast-moving rock glacier tongues ( ≥  5 m a−1), and relationships to external meteorological forcing are statistically tested.
The continuous measurements with high temporal resolution allowed us to detect short-term velocity peaks, which occur outside cold winter conditions, at these two rock glacier tongues. Our measurements further revealed that all rock glaciers experience clear intra-annual variations in movement in which the timing and the amplitude is reasonably similar in individual years. The seasonal decrease in velocity was typically smooth, starting 1–3 months after the seasonal decrease in temperatures, and was stronger in years with colder temperatures in mid winter. Seasonal acceleration was mostly abrupt and rapid compared to the winter deceleration, always starting during the zero curtain period. We found a statistically significant relationship between the occurrence of short-term velocity peaks and water input from heavy precipitation or snowmelt, while no velocity peak could be attributed solely to high temperatures. The findings of this study further suggest that, in addition to the short-term velocity peaks, the seasonal acceleration is also influenced by water infiltration, causing thermal advection and an increase in pore water pressure. In contrast, the amount of deceleration in winter seems to be mainly controlled by winter temperatures.