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The secret life of ice sails


We present the first dedicated study into the phenomenon of ice sails. These are clean ice structures that protrude from the surface of a small number of debris-covered glaciers and can grow to heights of over 25 m. We draw together what is known about them from the academic/exploration literature and then analyse imagery. We show here that ice sails can develop by one of two mechanisms, both of which require clean ice to become surrounded by debris-covered ice, where the debris layer is shallow enough for the ice beneath it to melt faster than the clean ice. Once formed, ice sails can persist for decades, in an apparently steady state, before debris layer thickening eventually causes a reversal in the relative melt rates and the ice sails decay to merge back with the surrounding glacier surface. We support our image-based analysis with a surface energy-balance model and show that it compares well with available observations from Baltoro Glacier in the Karakoram. A sensitivity analysis of the model is performed and confirms the results from our empirical study that ice sails require a relatively high evaporative heat flux and/or a relatively low sensible heat flux in order to exist.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
Correspondence: Geoffrey W. Evatt <>
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