Rock glaciers are receiving increased attention as a potential source of water and indicator of climate change in periglacial landscapes. They consist of an ice‐debris mixture, which creeps downslope. Although rock glaciers are a wide‐spread feature on the Tibetan Plateau, characteristics such as its ice fraction are unknown as a superficial debris layer inhibits remote assessments. We investigate one rock glacier in the semiarid western Nyainqêntanglha range (WNR) with a multi‐method approach, which combines geophysical, geological and geomorphological field investigations with remote sensing techniques. Long‐term kinematics of the rock glacier are detected by 4‐year InSAR time series analysis. The ice content and the active layer are examined by electrical resistivity tomography, ground penetrating radar, and environmental seismology. Short‐term activity (11‐days) is captured by a seismic network. Clast analysis shows a sorting of the rock glacier's debris. The rock glacier has three zones, which are defined by the following characteristics: (a) Two predominant lithology types are preserved separately in the superficial debris patterns, (b) heterogeneous kinematics and seismic activity, and (c) distinct ice fractions. Conceptually, the studied rock glacier is discussed as an endmember of the glacier—debris‐covered glacier—rock glacier continuum. This, in turn, can be linked to its location on the semiarid lee‐side of the mountain range against the Indian summer monsoon. Geologically preconditioned and glacially overprinted, the studied rock glacier is suggested to be a recurring example for similar rock glaciers in the WNR. This study highlights how geology, topography and climate influence rock glacier characteristics and development.
Plain Language Summary:
Climate change has begun to impact all regions of our planet. In cold regions, such as high‐mountain areas, rising temperatures lead to massive melting of glaciers. Besides this evident loss of ice, permafrost, a long‐term ice resource hidden in the subsurface, has started to thaw. Rock glaciers as visible permafrost‐related landforms consist of an ice‐debris mixture, which makes them creep downslope. Due to this movement and their recognizable shape, rock glaciers are permafrost indicators in high‐mountain areas. We investigate one rock glacier in the western Nyaingêntanglha Range (Tibetan Plateau) using field and remote sensing methods to understand its development and to know the current state of its ice core. Our main outcome is, that the heterogeneous creeping behavior, the properties of the debris cover as well as the internal distribution of ice are the results of a continuous development from a glacier into today's rock glacier. In particular, the high ice content in particular sections points to such a glacial precondition. The debris layer covering the internal ice attenuates the effect of climate warming. This makes the rock glacier and similar rock glaciers found in the northern part of the mountain range important future water resources for the semiarid region.
Geophysical and remote sensing methods in concert reveal the morphostructure, ice fraction, and kinematics of the studied rock glacier.
Rock glacier characteristics are controlled by geology, topography and climate on the Tibetan Plateau.
The studied rock glacier is conceptually interpreted as the endmember of a glacier—debris‐covered glacier—rock glacier continuum.
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)