News & Events

Grad student talk: Bedforms and blizzards on Niwot Ridge

Thursday, November 16, 2017, 12:30PM - 1:30PM


Kelly Kochanski


SEEC room S225

Seasonal snow covers approximately 15% of the surface of the Earth. The majority of this snow is found on tundra, ice sheets, and sea ice. These windswept snow surfaces self-organize into depositional bedforms, such as ripples, barchan dunes, and transverse waves, and erosional bedforms, such as anvil-shaped sastrugi. Previous researchers have shown that these bedforms influence the reflectivity, thermal conductivity, and aerodynamic roughness of the surface.

For the past two winters, we have observed the growth and movement of snow bedforms on Niwot Ridge, Colorado, at an elevation of 3500m. We have observed that (1) when wind speeds are below 3m/s, snow surfaces can be smooth, (2) when winds are higher than 3m/s during and immediately following a storm, the smooth surface is unstable and self-organizes into a field of dunes, (3) as snow begins to harden, it forms erosional bedforms that are characterized by vertical edges facing upwind (4) between 12 and 48 hours after each snowfall, alternating stripes of erosional and depositional bedforms occur, and (5) within 60 hours of each storm, the surface self-organizes into a field of sastrugi, which remains stable until it melts or becomes buried by the next snowfall.

Polar researchers should therefore expect snow-covered surfaces to be characterized by fields of bedforms, which evolve in response to variations in snow delivery, windspeed, and periods of sintering. Smooth drifts may be found in sheltered and forested regions. On most ice sheets and sea ice where snowfall is frequent, the typical surface is likely to consist of an evolving mix of depositional and erosional bedforms. Where snowfall is infrequent, for example in Antarctica, the surface will be dominated by sastrugi fields.