Video of the Week: Measuring Mass Balance on an Austrian Glacier

If the overall health of a glacier is determined by its yearly mass balance measurement––the gain and loss of a glacier’s ice––then a mass balance measurement is like an annual visit to the doctor for a physical examination. In the case of glaciers, the doctor comes to you. In this week’s Video of the Week, the annual checkup for Mullwitzkees, a glacier in East Tyrol in the Austrian Alps, was performed by a team which included 27-year old Andreas Gschwentner, an earth science master’s student at the University of Innsbruck. Gschwentner’s work is part of a long term glacier mass balance monitoring program supported by the Institute for Mountain Research in Innsbruck since 1963.

Mullwitzkees is a glacier in the Venediger Group, the most glaciated mountains in the High Tauern. The overall health of Mullwitzkees has been “close to equilibrium” since monitoring of the glacier began in 2006––though researchers recorded a negative average mass balance over the first decade of monitoring. The Mullwitzkees project is headed by glaciologists Martin Stocker-Waldhuber and Andrea Fischer, who note that Mullwitzkees’ health is highly variable year to year, largely dependent on snowfall received and the intensity of the melting season. In the 2013-2014 winter, for example, the glacier actually gained mass only to be immediately followed by the largest recorded mass loss the subsequent year.

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How is mass balance measured? Part 1 . . Measurement of mass gain (accumulation) verse mass loss (ablation) on glaciers is a direct assessment of the annual budget of the glacier. It can be thought of as the ‘health of a glacier’. We dig snow pits to measure the depth and density of the snow at the end of the accumulation season. . Here I am sampling snow and removing a core of a defined volume. The person who is filming is measuring and recording the mass of the samples. With these data we calculate the density of the snow and convert it into snow water equivalent – it can be thought of as the depth of water that would theoretically result if you melted the entire snowpack instantaneously. #massbalance #glaciology #science #scicomm #glacier #sow #snowpit #fieldwork #fieldworkfriday #climatechange #mullwitzkees #großvenediger #alps #austria #tirol #osttirol #protectourwinters @karpos

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Making the visit to the glacier surface and performing the measurements is an arduous task, which Gschwentner and his colleagues–– Stocker-Waldhuber, Bernd Seiser, and Andrina Janicke––make look like quite a good time. A song by the rock group Whitesnake can be heard playing over a portable speaker with the lyrics “sweet satisfaction to soothe my soul” as snow pits are being dug. Gschwentner shared the videos on his personal Instagram page.

According to Gschwentner, monitoring of Mullwitzkees includes creating a summer and winter mass balance using the direct glaciological method and the Fixed Date System. Mass balance studies using the glaciological method are based on measuring various points on a glacier directly. Within one hydrologic year (October 1 to September 30 of the following year) gains and losses in mass are measured. The measurements at different locations on the glacier are integrated and compared to the previous year to determine the change in mass.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Not All Glaciers Retreat with Climate Change

Glaciers Account for More Sea Level Rise Than Previously Thought

Roundup: Himalaya Pollutants, Patagonia Food Web Study, and Snowfall Variability Dictates Glacier Mass Balance

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