Firn Permeability: New Use of an Old Technique

Posted by William Colgan on March 06, 2017
Communicating Science, New Research / No Comments

We have a new study out this month in Frontiers in Earth Science1 that describes using an old-school hydrogeology method on the Greenland Ice Sheet. We used pump-testing, which has been conventionally used to measure soil permeability for groundwater flow, to infer the permeability of ice-sheet firn to meltwater flow. We wanted to quantitatively measure how massive ice layers formed by refreezing meltwater in the near-surface ice sheet firn could inhibit meltwater flow in subsequent years.


Figure 1 – The low tech and low cost pump-testing device used to infer firn permeability on the Greenland Ice Sheet. A vacuum is applied at depth in the sealed vacuum borehole and the resulting pressure response is measured in the sealed monitoring borehole.

In conventional pump-testing, water is pumped out of a borehole at a controlled rate, and the groundwater level response, or drawdown is observed in a monitoring borehole located some distance away. We did something similar in the ice-sheet firn, pumping air out of a vacuum borehole and measuring the air pressure response is a sealed monitoring borehole about one meter away. We did pump tests at six ice sheet sites that had varying degrees of massive ice layers in the near-surface firn.

We found that vertical permeability between firn layers was generally much lower than horizontal permeability within a firn layer, and that vertical permeability decreased with increasing ice content. At the lowest elevation site, where meltwater production and refreezing is most prevalent, we drilled into an exceptionally massive ice layer the pump borehole was able to maintain an effective vacuum. In other words, thick massive ice layers are indeed impermeable to fluids. That was a little surprising!


Figure 2 – Inferred horizontal (kr) and vertical (kz) firn permeability values at five ice-sheet sites. Horizontal blue lines indicate the depths of ice layers at each site. Vertical cyan and magenta shading represents inferred permeability limits.

While it may sound esoteric, the permeability of near-surface firn is an increasingly visible topic in ice-sheet research. Studies have shown that firn can act to either buffer sea level rise by absorbing meltwater2, or enhance sea level rise by forming impermeable refrozen ice layers3. As climate change increases meltwater production within the historical accumulation zone of the ice sheet, a greater area of ice-sheet hydrology will be influenced by refrozen ice layers. In future, higher vacuum pressures and repeated measurements should allow firn permeability to be measured over larger scales to improve our understanding of changing firn permeability.

For now, the proof-of-concept pump-testing device is relatively low tech and low cost. Aside from air-pressure sensors and a data logger, it was constructed by items you could find at your local hardware store; plastic PVC pipes channeling the power of a shop vacuum. Development of the firn pump-testing device was initiated by a University of Colorado Dean’s Graduate Student Research Grant to highly innovative lead-author Aleah Sommers, and it was deployed in collaboration with the FirnCover project during the 2016 field campaign.


Figure 3 – Max Stevens and Aleah Sommers preparing to insert the pressure sensor and seal into the monitoring borehole at Saddle, Greenland, in May 2016.

1Sommers et al. 2017. Inferring Firn Permeability from Pneumatic Testing: A Case Study on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Frontiers in Earth Science. 5: 20.

2Harper et al. 2012. Greenland ice-sheet contribution to sea-level rise buffered by meltwater storage in firn. Nature. 491: 240-243.

3Machguth et al. 2016. Greenland meltwater storage in firn limited by near-surface ice formation. Nature Climate Change. 6: 390-393.

Tags: , , , , , , ,