Cirques form and evolve as glaciers attack the bed and subaerial processes dismantle the surrounding walls. Collectively, these processes—which can make a cirque longer, or deeper, or both—profoundly influence near-divide regions of glaciated mountains and yet are rarely studied in a systematic way. Toward this end, we developed a theoretical framework for the sediment budget of a cirque that includes sediment sources, transport pathways, and storage elements. We quantified each component of the sediment budget using field measurements and remote-sensing data of a glaciated alpine cirque in British Columbia, Canada. The cirque has a plan-view area of 1.64 km2 and relief of ∼780 m. Our budget values, which correspond to a period of substantial glacier retreat, are based on measurements reflecting time intervals ranging from 1 yr to 80 yr. We report errors as a range (enclosed in parentheses), analogous to 95% confidence bounds.
On average, 1640 (250–7950) metric tons of rock are released by the headwall each year; nearly 90% of this debris leaves the wall as small rockfalls or in snow avalanches. Our field observations indicated that snow avalanches originating as cornice failures are currently the most important transport process on the headwall. We estimated the mass of debris transported annually by the glacier to the foreland using (1) the volume and age of the foreland ground moraine and (2) the product of rock mass per unit volume of ice and glacier velocity. Over the past several decades, the glacier delivered 6440 (1180–14930) tons/yr to the foreland via forward ice motion and margin retreat (mostly in subglacial till or sediment-rich basal layers). Less than 3% of the glacierborne sediment flux traveled as supraglacial debris (170 [50–320] tons/yr). At present, sediment evacuation from the cirque occurs in a single meltwater stream. We monitored water discharge and suspended sediment concentration in this stream between 29 June and 28 August 2007. By season’s end, 650 (80–1860) tons of sediment had passed our gauging station (equivalent to an erosion rate of 0.2 [0.03–0.70] mm/yr, when averaged over the glacier bed). Approximately one third of the total annual streamborne sediment transport occurred over a 2 d period during the first major melt event of the year.
Using our budget relations and flux magnitudes, we estimate the glacier is removing between 1240 and 2470 tons of rock from its bed per year, a rate equivalent to 0.5–0.9 mm/yr of erosion glacierwide. The headwall, by comparison, is being worn away horizontally at ∼1.2 (0.2–5.9) mm/yr. Thus, our results suggest that the headwall is retreating at rates roughly equivalent to vertical incision by the glacier. Our sediment budget results demonstrate that the wide variety of sediment sources and transport processes active in cirques necessitates a holistic view of cirque formation, one that most morphometric, range-scale, and glacial erosion analyses ignore.