First Advisor

Andrew G. Fountain

Date of Publication

Summer 11-2-2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.) in Geology






Cryoconite -- Antarctica -- McMurdo Dry Valleys



Physical Description

1 online resource (v, 90 pages)


Cryoconite holes are vertical columns of meltwater within the shallow subsurface of glaciers. In the McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV) of Antarctica cryoconite holes are a source of meltwater and harbor microbial communities in an otherwise arid environment with low biologic activity. The holes form as sediments on the ice surface, which are darker than the surrounding ice, are preferentially heated by solar radiation. The warm sediments melt the underlying ice and migrate downwards. An ice lid forms, isolating them from the below-freezing atmosphere enabling them to remain thawed. In this study, field observations, laboratory experiments, and numerical modeling are used to characterize the fundamental variables controlling cryoconite hole development.

Field and laboratory results show that solar radiation drives cryoconite hole melting by controlling the energy available to the cryoconite and to warm the surrounding ice. Holes deepen further in warmer ice. Laboratory results show that at temperatures of -10º C at least 405 (W m-2) are needed to warm the cryoconite sufficiently to melt surrounding ice. Numerical modeling shows that increased radiation flux into the subsurface and warmer air temperatures cause cryoconite to descend deeper and the meltwater-filled holes to enlarge, while increased surface ablation decreases their average depth. Cryoconite holes thaw sooner and refreeze later when the optical properties of the ice facilitate greater radiation transmission. Cryoconite warms the ice significantly more than ice without cryoconite. Within the melt-filled hole, the heat capacity of the water keeps the surrounding ice warm for several weeks after the cryoconite-free ice has cooled. The cryoconite itself is last to completely freeze.


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