Rock weathering, erosion, and sublimation rates of ancient buried ice in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Lamp, Jennifer Lynn
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The inland region of the McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV) of Antarctica represents a subzero, hyper-arid endmember for physical weathering, and is Earth’s closest terrestrial analog to the Martian surface. In order to document the style and rate of rock breakdown in this region, I conducted field-based, experimental, and numerical modeling studies of supraglacial debris (Mullins till) on Mullins Glacier. These investigations were designed to (1) quantify the rate and processes of physical breakdown of surface rocks on Mullins till, particularly of Ferrar Dolerite, (2) determine the efficacy of thermal stress weathering as an agent in rock erosion, and (3) examine the role of physical weathering in altering the sublimation of buried glacial ice. Results from morphometric field surveys characterizing changes in rock shape, strength, and small-scale surface features, coupled with an iterative cosmogenic nuclide-based age model for Mullins Glacier, show that total erosion rates for clasts of Ferrar Dolerite on Mullins till range from 1.1 to 15 cm Myr-1. In situ field measurements of rock surface temperatures and local ambient conditions recorded at 15-second intervals, combined with a numerical finite element model elucidating changes in internal rock temperatures and associated strain, show that thermal stress weathering is sufficient to induce spalling by propagating existing microcracks of ≥1.1 cm that typically occur at the base of thin, mm-scale alteration rinds. The implication is that thermal stress weathering, previously undocumented in this region, may account for >80% of the total estimated erosion of Ferrar Dolerite. Furthermore, the spalled fragments (up to 5% of Mullins till) provide a negative feedback that slows the rate of subsurface ice sublimation and internal vapor diffusion. Experimental analyses in a controlled environmental chamber set with Mullins till and driven by local meteorological conditions measured in the field yields an average effective diffusivity of 4.5 x 10-6 m2 s-1 for Mullins till and annual rates of buried ice loss of <0.068 mm (assuming Fickian diffusion); these values are consistent with theoretical estimates, demonstrate the importance of physical weathering in modifying supraglacial deposits, and support arguments for persistent cold-desert conditions in the MDV for the last several million years.