Biogeochemistry and hydrology of three alpine proglacial environments resulting from glacier retreat
Bruckner, Monica Zanzola
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Proglacial environments, formed by glacier retreat, exhibit distinct characteristics in discharge, water temperature, water residence time, and dissolved ion, carbon, and suspended sediment concentrations. The unnamed alpine glacier at the headwaters of the Wheaton River, Yukon, Canada, provides an ideal setting to compare deglaciation processes that result in three different proglacial environments. The glacier has evolved from occupying one large catchment (~4 km²) to two smaller catchments (each ~2 km²) via glacier thinning and net mass loss, forming two lobes separated by a medial moraine. Field observations revealed neither crevasses nor evidence of subglacial drainage outlets and suggested this glacier had a non-temperate thermal regime with meltwater predominantly flowing from supraglacial and ice marginal sources. Climate and bedrock geology were similar for the subcatchments, providing a natural laboratory to compare deglaciation processes. This study compared the hydrology and biogeochemistry of three outlet streams from this glacier: one stream drained a proglacial lake which is fed by meltwater from the lower west lobe, a second stream drained the upper west lobe, and a third stream was the major drainage outlet for the east lobe. Hydrologic monitoring over the 2006 melt season (June-August) and analyses of water samples for dissolved ion content and carbon indicated that the meltwaters are dominated by Ca²+ and HCO 3-, which are derived from biogeochemical weathering of crustal materials. The study demonstrated that the presence of the proglacial lake, which acted as a meltwater reservoir, measurably modified meltwater residence time, water temperature, water chemistry, and bacterial biomass relative to the proglacial streams. Rock:water interaction between meltwater and medial morainal sediment and fine-grained, reactive glacial flour suspended in the streams and the lake water column also enhanced biogeochemical weathering within the catchment. Thus, this study provided a small-scale example for how differences in proglacial environments and water flow paths affect headwater hydrology and biogeochemistry. This study was the first of its kind in the Coast Mountains, Yukon, Canada, and results presented here aid in the understanding of how proglacial environments created by climate-induced glacier retreat affect hydrochemistry, hydrology, and carbon dynamics in remote high elevation environments.