Reliable estimates of glacier mass balance allow insight into the meteorological drivers of glacier change, but financial and logistical limitations restrict field-based measurements to only a small number of the world’s glaciers. In southwestern Canada, frequent cloud cover and small glacier size also preclude the measurement of seasonal mass change from space. Here, we describe our ongoing research program employing airborne laser altimetry to estimate surface mass balance for six alpine glaciers in the Columbia Basin. Our surveyed glaciers define a north-south transect through the basin and collectively represent 188 km2 of glaciated terrain (about 10% of the basin’s glacierized area). Our LiDAR surveys acquire altimetry with a typical sampling density of 1-3 returns per m2 and with a vertical accuracy of 0.15-0.20 m. Since 2014, we have aligned these airborne surveys to coincide with our field-based, mass balance program that collects measurements at the end of the accumulation and ablation seasons. Geodetic and field-based estimates of seasonal to annual mass balance show remarkable agreement, to within 0.1-0.4 m water equivalent (< 10%). The agreement is greatest for glaciers where we have the densest field-based measurements, implying that our traditional mass balance program could be error prone since it may not capture the spatial variability of surface accumulation and melt at a suitably high sampling density. Using laser altimetry can improve regional estimates of mass change and, ultimately, lead to superior forecasts of glacier loss for the twenty-first century.
Ben Pelto is a PhD Candidate in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia and a PICS research fellow.
This talk is part of the Climate Science Informal Seminars series hosted by the University of Northern British Columbia and the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society.