Surface and subsurface hydrology of debris-covered Khumbu Glacier, Nepal, revealed by dye tracing

Authors Organisations
Type Article
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)176-186
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date06 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - 01 May 2019
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While the supraglacial hydrology of debris-covered glaciers is relatively well studied, almost nothing is known about how water is transported beneath the glacier surface. Here, we report the results of sixteen fluorescent dye tracing experiments conducted in 2018 over the lowermost 7 km of the high-elevation, debris-covered Khumbu Glacier, Nepal, to characterise the glacier’s surface and subsurface drainage system. Dye breakthroughs indicated a likely highly sinuous and channelised subsurface hydrological system draining water from the upper part of the ablation area. This flowpath was distinct from the linked chain of supraglacial ponds present along much of the glacier’s lower ablation area, through which water flow was extremely slow (~0.003 m s-1), likely reflecting the study’s timing during the pre-monsoon period. Subsurface drainage pathways emerged at the glacier surface close to the terminus, and flowed into small near-surface englacial reservoirs that typically delayed meltwater transit by several hours. We observed rapid pathway changes resulting from surface collapse, indicating a further distinctive aspect of the drainage of debris-covered glaciers. We conclude that the surface and subsurface drainage of Khumbu Glacier is both distinctive and dynamic, and argue that further investigation is needed to refine the characterisation and test its regional applicability to better understand future Himalayan debris-covered glacier meltwater delivery to downstream areas.


  • Glacier hydrology, dye tracing, debris-covered glacier, Himalaya, subglacial