Airborne laser altimetry survey of Glaciar Tyndall, Patagonia

K. Keller, G. Casassa, A. Rivera, René Forsberg, N. Gundestrup

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The first airborne laser altimetry measurements of a glacier in South America are presented. Data were collected in November of 2001 over Glaciar Tyndall, Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia, onboard a Twin Otter airplane of the Chilean Air Force. A laser scanner with a rotating polygon-mirror system together with an Inertial Navigation System (INS) were fixed to the floor of the aircraft, and used in combination with two dual-frequency GPS receivers. Together, the laser-INS-GPS system had a nominal accuracy of 30 cm after data processing. On November 23rd, a total of 235 km were flown over the ablation area of Glaciar Tyndall, with 5 longitudinal tracks with a mean swath width of 300 m, which results in a point spacing of approximately 2 m both along and across track. A digital elevation model (DEM) generated using the laser altimetry data was compared with a DEM produced from a 1975 map (1:50,000 scale - Instituto Geografico Militar (IGM), Chile). A mean thinning of -3.1 +/- 1.0 m a(-1) was calculated for the ablation area of Glaciar Tyndall, with a maximum value of -7.7 +/- 1.0 m a(-1) at the calving front at 50 m a.s.l. and minimum values of between -1.0 and -2.0 +/- 1.0 m a(-1) at altitudes close to the equilibrium line altitude (900 m a.s.l.). The thinning rates derived from the airborne survey were similar to the results obtained by means of ground survey carried out at similar to 600 m of altitude on Glaciar Tyndall between 1975 and 2002, yielding a mean thinning of - 3.2 m a(-1) [Raymond, C., Neumann, T.A., Rignot, E., Echelmeyer, K.A., Rivera, A., Casassa, G., 2005. Retreat of Tyndall Glacier, Patagonia, over the last half century. Journal of Glaciology 173 (51), 239-247.]. A good agreement was also found between ice elevation changes measured with laser data and previous results obtained with Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data. We conclude that airborne laser altimetry is an effective means for accurately detecting glacier elevation changes in Patagonia, where an ice thinning acceleration trend has been observed during recent years, presumably in response to warming and possibly also drier conditions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
Issue number1-4
Pages (from-to)101-109
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • glacier
  • South America
  • Patagonia
  • mass balance
  • laser altimetry

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