Glacier models often fail to incorporate the geometry and/or physical properties of tributaries included in complex glaciers. Tributary glaciers have different source areas and flow conditions than the adjacent main valley glacier. Ice cores (~3m depth) and surface samples (<0.5m depth) were collected from Grenzgletscher (main valley glacier) and Zwillingsgletscher (tributary glacier) in the Gornergletscher system of the Swiss Alps. Stable water isotopes indicate seasonal variation, showing 1-2 annual layers. The mean d18O for Grenzgletscher is ~4.8‰ lower than for Zwillingsgletscher. This difference may be accounted for in part by elevation differences between the accumulation areas (~1.1‰ δ18O), increased avalanching in Grenzgletscher (~1.8 ‰ δ18O), and by varying climatic conditions at the time of precipitation (~0.9-1.4‰ variation in δ18O). Using a kinematic ice flow model, core ages were estimated using effective annual layer thickness (based on seasonal variations), annual accumulation rate and ice thickness. The Grenzgletscher core is ~4 years older than the Zwillingsgletscher core. Based on ages and flow distances, the tributary has a lower flow velocity (63-87 m/yr) compared to Grenzgletscher (61-134 m/yr). To understand thermal properties of the tributary, a 775 m GPR survey (200 MHz) was conducted along a flow line of Zwillingsgletscher. Topographic waves (ogives) observed on the surface are mimicked by the onset of reflectivity 10-20 m below the surface. Reflective regions are interpreted as warmer ice at the pressure melting point, overlain by colder ice. This thermal structure is likely related to acceleration through an ice fall. Since most tributary glaciers include ice falls, thermal properties of tributary glaciers may be different from those of the main valley glacier. The properties and geometry of tributary glaciers are significantly different from main valley glaciers and should therefore be incorporated into glacier models in the future.



College and Department

Physical and Mathematical Sciences; Geological Sciences



Date Submitted


Document Type





Gornergletscher, Zwillingsgletscher, Grenzgletscher, ice dynamics, ogives, ground penetrating radar



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Geology Commons