Rock debris on the surface of a glacier can dramatically reduce the local melt rate, where the primary factor governing melt reduction is debris layer thickness. Relating surface temperature to debris thickness is a recurring approach in the literature, yet demonstrations of reproducibility have been limited. Here, I present the results of a field experiment conducted on the Canwell Glacier, Alaska, United States to constrain how thermal data can be used in glaciology. These datasets include, 1) a measured sub-daily “Østrem curve” time-series; 2) a time-series of high resolution thermal images capturing several segments of different debris thicknesses including the measurements from 1); 3) a thermal profile through a 38 cm debris cover; and 4) two Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) satellite thermal images acquired within 2 and 3 min of a field-based thermal camera image. I show that, while clear sky conditions are when space-borne thermal sensors can image a glacier, this is an unfavorable time, limiting the likelihood that different thicknesses of debris will have a unique thermal signature. I then propose an empirical approach to estimate debris thickness and compare it to two recently published methods. I demonstrate that instantaneous calibration is essential in the previously published methods, where model parameters calibrated only 1 h prior to a repeat thermal image return diminished debris thickness estimates, while the method proposed here remains robust through time and does not appear to require re-calibration. I then propose a method that uses a time-series of surface temperature at one location and debris thickness to estimate bare-ice and sub-debris melt. Results show comparable cumulative melt estimates to a recently published method that requires an explicit/external estimate of bare ice melt. Finally, I show that sub-pixel corrections to ASTER thermal imagery can enable a close resemblance to high resolution, field-based thermal imagery. These results offer a deeper insight into what thermal data can and cannot tell us about surface debris properties and glacier melt.
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