Tranter, M. and Sharp, M.J. and Lamb, H.R. and Brown, G. H. and Hubbard, B. P. and Willis, I. C. (2002)

Geochemical weathering at the bed of Haut Glacier d’Arolla, Switzerland—a new model

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Hydrological Processes
Waters were sampled from 17 boreholes at Haut Glacier d’Arolla during the 1993 and 1994 ablation seasons. Three types of concentrated subglacial water were identified, based on the relative proportions of Ca2C, HCO3 and SO4 2- to Si. Type A waters are the most solute rich and have the lowest relative proportion of Si. They are believed to form in hydrologically inefficient areas of a distributed drainage system. Most solute is obtained from coupled sulphide oxidation and carbonate dissolution (SO–CD). It is possible that there is a subglacial source of O2, perhaps from gas bubbles released during regelation, because the high SO4 2- levels found (up to 1200 µeq/L) are greater than could be achieved if sulphides are oxidized by oxygen in saturated water at 0 °C (c. 414 µeq/L). A more likely alternative is that sulphide is oxidized by Fe3C in anoxic environments. If this is the case, exchange reactions involving FeIII and FeII from silicates are possible. These have the potential to generate relatively high concentrations of HCO3 with respect to SO4 2-. Formation of secondary weathering products, such as clays, may explain the low Si concentrations of Type A waters. Type B waters were the most frequently sampled subglacial water. They are believed to be representative of waters flowing in more efficient parts of a distributed drainage system. Residence time and reaction kinetics help determine the solute composition of these waters. The initial water–rock reactions are carbonate and silicate hydrolysis, and there is exchange of divalent cations from solution for monovalent cations held on surface exchange sites. Hydrolysis is followed by SO–CD. The SO4 2- concentrations usually are <414 µeq/L, although some range up to 580 µeq/L, which suggests that elements of the distributed drainage system may become anoxic. Type C waters were the most dilute, yet they were very turbid. Their chemical composition is characterized by low SO4 2- : HCO3 ratios and high pH. Type C waters were usually artefacts of the borehole chemical weathering environment. True Type C waters are believed to flow through sulphide-poor basal debris, particularly in the channel marginal zone. The composition of bulk runoff was most similar to diluted Type B waters at high discharge, and was similar to a mixture of Type B and C waters at lower discharge. These observations suggest that some supraglacial meltwaters input to the bed are stored temporarily in the channel marginal zone during rising discharge and are released during declining flow. Little of the subglacial chemical weathering we infer is associated with the sequestration of atmospheric CO2. The progression of reactions is from carbonate and silicate hydrolysis, through sulphide oxidation by first oxygen and then FeIII, which drives further carbonate and silicate weathering. A crude estimate of the ratio of carbonate to silicate weathering following hydrolysis is 4 : 1. We speculate that microbial oxidation of organic carbon also may occur. Both sulphide oxidation and microbial oxidation of organic carbon are likely to drive the bed towards suboxic conditions. Hence, we believe that subglacial chemical weathering does not sequester significant quantities of atmospheric CO2 and that one of the key controls on the rate and magnitude of solute acquisition is microbial activity, which catalyses the reduction of FeIII and the oxidation of FeS2.