Evolution of cryoconite holes and their contribution to melt-water runoff from glaciers in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica


  • Fountain, A.G.
  • Tranter, M.
  • Nylen, T.H.
  • Lewis, K.J.
  • Mueller, D.R.




Cryoconite holes are water-filled holes in the surface of a glacier caused by enhanced ice melt around trapped sediment. Measurements on the ablation zones of four glaciers in Taylor Valley, Antarctica, show that cryoconite holes cover about 4–6% of the ice surface. They typically vary in diameter from 5 to 145 cm, with depths ranging from 4 to 56 cm. In some cases, huge holes form with 5 m depths and 30 m diameters. Unlike cryoconite holes elsewhere, these have ice lids up to 36 cm thick and melt from within each spring. About one-half of the holes are connected to the near-surface hydrologic system and the remainder are isolated. The duration of isolation, estimated from the chloride accumulation in hole waters, commonly shows ages of several years, with one hole of 10 years. The cryoconite holes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys create a near-surface hydrologic system tens of cm below the ice surface. The glacier surface itself is generally frozen and dry. Comparison of water levels between holes a few meters apart shows independent cycles of water storage and release. Most likely, local freeze-thaw effects control water passage and therefore temporary storage. Rough calculations indicate that the holes generate at least 13% of the observed runoff on the one glacier measured. This hydrologic system represents the transition between a melting ice cover with supraglacial streams and one entirely frozen and absent of water.


International Glaciological Society

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Published in Peer Reviewed Journal

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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

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Department of Geography and Environmental Studies

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