Snow and ice penitentes

I am currently in the Coquimbo region of Chile working on a project in which we are scanning snow and ice penitentes using the Kinect sensor from an XBox in collaboration with the glaciology group of the Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Aridas (CEAZA).

Peni-whats? I hear you say. Well, penitentes are features that form in snow and ice surfaces in areas with very low humidity, low temperatures and lots of solar radiation. This combination of conditions allows the formation spikes in the surface that can reach up to several metres in height. Here is a photo of me in a small snow penitente field:

Lindsey in penitentes

Penitentes are interesting as although they are widespread in this region, it is not yet clear how they affect the rate of glacier recession that is occurring or the meltwater resources. For example do they act to ‘preserve’ glaciers, or do they accelerate the loss of glacier snow and ice? Is more or less meltwater produced from penitente regions? Do they result in more snow and ice being evaporated or sublimated directly into the atmosphere instead of entering the rivers?

We plan to use the Kinect sensor to produce the first detailed surface scans of penitentes in small areas of the glacier surface, which we will monitor over time to determine how their shape changes and the rate of snow and ice volume loss over the summer season. This information can be used to understand the processes of penitente growth and also to see if numerical models of glacier ablation are accurate for cases when the surface is covered in penitentes.

You can follow the activities of the CEAZA glaciology group here: CEAZA Glaciologia

Here are a couple of interesting videos of penitentes:

Here are references of some interesting academic papers written about penitentes:

  • Lliboutry, L. (1954). The origin of penitents. Journal of Glaciology, 2, 331–338.
  • Betterton, M. D. (2001). Theory of structure formation in snowfields motivated by penitentes, suncups, and dirt cones. Physical Review E, 63(056129), 1–12.
  • Cathles, L. M., Abbot, D. S. and MacAyeal, D. R, (in press) Intra-surface radiative transfer limits the geographic extent of snow penitents on horizontal snow fields. Journal of Glaciology


About lindsey

Environmental scientist. I am glaciologist specialising in glacier-climate interactions to better understand the climate system. The point of this is to understand how glaciated envionments might change in the future - how the glaciers will respond and what the impact on associated water resources and hazard potential will be.
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