Modelling the hydrological response of debris-free and debris-covered glaciers to present climatic conditions in the semiarid Andes of central Chile

Alvaro Ayala, Francesca Pellicciotti, Shelley MacDonell, James McPhee, Sebastian Vivero, Cristian Campos, Pascal Egli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


We apply the process-based, distributed TOPKAPI-ETH glacio-hydrological model to a glacierized catchment (19% glacierized) in the semiarid Andes of central Chile. The semiarid Andes provides vital freshwater resources to valleys in Chile and Argentina, but only few glacio-hydrological modelling studies have been conducted, and its dominant hydrological processes remain poorly understood. The catchment contains two debris-free glaciers reaching down to 3900 m asl (Bello and Yeso glaciers) and one debris-covered avalanche-fed glacier reaching to 3200 m asl (Piramide Glacier). Our main objective is to compare the mass balance and runoff contributions of both glacier types under current climatic conditions. We use a unique dataset of field measurements collected over two ablation seasons combined with the distributed TOPKAPI-ETH model that includes physically oriented parameterizations of snow and ice ablation, gravitational distribution of snow, snow albedo evolution and the ablation of debris-covered ice. Model outputs indicate that while the mass balance of Bello and Yeso glaciers is mostly explained by temperature gradients, the Piramide Glacier mass balance is governed by debris thickness and avalanches and has a clear non-linear profile with elevation as a result. Despite the thermal insulation effect of the debris cover, the mass balance and contribution to runoff from debris-free and debris-covered glaciers are similar in magnitude, mainly because of elevation differences. However, runoff contributions are distinct in time and seasonality with ice melt starting approximately four weeks earlier from the debris-covered glacier, what is of relevance for water resources management. At the catchment scale, snowmelt is the dominant contributor to runoff during both years. However, during the driest year of our simulations, ice melt contributes 42 ± 8% and 67 ± 6% of the annual and summer runoff, respectively. Sensitivity analyses show that runoff is most sensitive to temperature and precipitation gradients, melt factors and debris cover thickness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4036-4058
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number22
Early online date30 Jul 2016
Publication statusPublished - 30 Oct 2016


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