28 Jan 2022
28 Jan 2022
Status: a revised version of this preprint is currently under review for the journal ESurf.

Alpine rock glacier activity over Holocene to modern timescales (western French Alps)

Benjamin Lehmann1,2, Robert S. Anderson2, Xavier Bodin1, Diego Cusicanqui1,3, Pierre G. Valla4, and Julien Carcaillet4 Benjamin Lehmann et al.
  • 1Université Savoie Mont Blanc, CNRS, EDYTEM, 73000, Chambéry, France
  • 2INSTAAR and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO 80309, USA
  • 3Université Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, IRD, IGE, Grenoble, France
  • 4Université Grenoble Alpes, Univ. Savoie Mont Blanc, CNRS, IRD, IFSTTAR, ISTerre, 38000, Grenoble, France

Abstract. Rock glaciers are some of the most frequent cryospheric landforms in mid-latitude high-elevation mountain ranges. Their activity strongly influences alpine environments over short (years to decades) and long (centuries to millennia) timescales. Being conspicuous expressions of mountain permafrost and important water reserves in the form of ground ice, rock glaciers are seen as increasingly important actors in the geomorphological and hydrological evolution of mountain systems, especially in the context of climate change. Over geological timescales, rock glaciers both reflect paleoclimate conditions and transport rock boulders produced by headwall erosion and therefore participate in shaping high mountain slopes. However, the dynamics of rock glaciers and their evolution over different timescales remain under-constrained.

In this study, we adopt a multi-method approach including field observations, remote sensing and geochronology, to investigate the rock glacier system of the Vallon de la Route (Combeynot massif, western French Alps). Remote sensing employing image correlation documents the displacement field of the rock glacier over modern timescales (1–101 years). Over longer periods (103–104 years), we employ terrestrial cosmogenic nuclide (10Be in quartz) exposure dating on rock-boulder surfaces located along the central flow line of the rock glacier, targeting different longitudinal positions from the headwall to the rock-glacier terminus.

Our results show 10Be surface-exposure ages ranging from 1.88 ± 0.14 to 13.10 ± 0.51 ka. The spatial distribution of rock-glacier boulders reveals a first-order inverse correlation between 10Be surface-exposure age and elevation; and a positive correlation with horizontal distance to the headwall. These observations support the hypothesis of rock boulders falling from the headwall and remaining on the glacier surface as they are transported down valley, which thus can be used to estimate rock-glacier surface velocity over geological timescales. Our results also suggest that the rock glacier is characterized by two major episodes of activity. The first phase, starting around 12 ka, displays a 10Be-age gradient that suggests a rock-glacier surface velocity of about 0.45 m/a. Following a quiescent period between ca. 6.2 ka and 3.4 ka, the present-day active upper two units have been emplaced during climatic conditions favoring rock-glacier motion at around 0.18 m/a. Those results allow us to quantify back erosion rates of the headwall between 1.0 and 2.5 mm/a, higher than catchment-integrated denudation rates estimated over millennial timescales, suggesting that the rock-glacier system promotes the maintenance of high rock-wall erosion.

Benjamin Lehmann et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • CC1: 'Comment on esurf-2022-8', Felix Martin Hofmann, 09 Feb 2022
    • AC1: 'Reply on CC1', Benjamin Lehmann, 19 May 2022
  • RC1: 'Comment on esurf-2022-8', Marcelo Fernandes, 16 Mar 2022
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC1', Benjamin Lehmann, 19 May 2022
  • RC2: 'Comment on esurf-2022-8', Anonymous Referee #2, 21 Mar 2022
    • AC3: 'Reply on RC2', Benjamin Lehmann, 19 May 2022

Benjamin Lehmann et al.

Benjamin Lehmann et al.


Total article views: 893 (including HTML, PDF, and XML)
HTML PDF XML Total BibTeX EndNote
702 172 19 893 3 4
  • HTML: 702
  • PDF: 172
  • XML: 19
  • Total: 893
  • BibTeX: 3
  • EndNote: 4
Views and downloads (calculated since 28 Jan 2022)
Cumulative views and downloads (calculated since 28 Jan 2022)

Viewed (geographical distribution)

Total article views: 821 (including HTML, PDF, and XML) Thereof 821 with geography defined and 0 with unknown origin.
Country # Views %
  • 1
Latest update: 22 May 2022
Short summary
Rock glaciers are some of the most frequent landforms containing ice in mountain environments. Here, we use field observations, analysis of aerial and satellite images and dating method, to investigate the activity of the rock glacier of the Vallon de la Route in the French Alps. Our results suggest that the rock glacier is characterized by two major episodes of activity and that the rock-glacier system promotes the maintenance of mountain erosion.