Thermal structure of Svalbard glaciers and implications for thermal switch models of glacier surging

Heïdi Sevestre*, Douglas I. Benn, Nicholas R J Hulton, Karoline Bælum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Switches between cold- and warm-based conditions have long been invoked to explain surges of High Arctic glaciers. Here we compile existing and new data on the thermal regime of six glaciers in Svalbard to test the applicability of thermal switch models. Two of the large glaciers of our sample are water terminating while one is land terminating. All three have a well-known surge history. They have a thick basal layer of temperate ice, superimposed by cold ice. A cold terminus forms during quiescence but is mechanically removed by calving on tidewater glaciers. The other three glaciers are relatively small and are either entirely cold or have a diminishing warm core. All three bear evidence of former warm-based thermal regimes and, in two cases, surge-like behavior during the Little Ice Age. In Svalbard, therefore, three types of glaciers have switched from slow to fast flow: (1) small glaciers that underwent thermal cycles during and following the Little Ice Age (switches between cold- and warm-based conditions), (2) large terrestrial glaciers which remain warm based throughout the entire surge cycle but develop cold termini during quiescence, and (3) large tidewater glaciers that remain warm based throughout the surge cycle. Our results demonstrate that thermal switching cannot explain the surges of large glaciers in Svalbard. We apply the concept of enthalpy cycling to the spectrum of surge and surge-like behavior displayed by these glaciers and demonstrate that all Svalbard surge-type glaciers can be understood within a single conceptual framework.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2220-2236
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number10
Early online date31 Oct 2015
Publication statusPublished - 12 Nov 2015


  • glacier dynamics
  • ground-penetrating radar (GPR)
  • surges
  • Svalbard
  • thermal regime


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