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SwRI Wins National Science Foundation Grant to Study Rock Glaciers in Europe

Scientists at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and West University of Timisoara, Romania, will use remote-sensing technology to study the evolution and movement of rock glaciers in the Carpathian Mountains of Central Europe.

The international collaboration, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is led by Dr. Marius Necsoiu, a principal scientist in SwRI’s Geosciences and Engineering Division. The team will use new methods based on complementary analysis of high-resolution optical and radar satellite imagery to quantify rock glacier dynamics.

“This collaboration is significant in several ways,” notes Geosciences and Engineering Division vice president Dr. Wesley Patrick. “It combines the multi-disciplinary expertise of international colleagues, leverages and extends current technologies, and aims to establish a measurement protocol that will improve our ability to monitor stability of materials that can affect transportation infrastructure and safety.”

Unlike the better-known glaciers that are essentially rivers of ice, rock glaciers are composed of frozen rock and soil. Rock glaciers can be found at high elevations, even in more temperate parts of the world.

“Rock glaciers are the most important form of high mountain permafrost, yet they are little-studied,” Necsoiu said. “Investigating rock glacier dynamics is a key factor in understanding the evolution and movement of permafrost-related formations under changing climate conditions.” Permafrost is defined as ground that remains below freezing for at least two years in a row; thus, it is particularly sensitive to climate change.

Monitoring terrain change is necessary to understand rock glaciers’ mass-transport processes, to detect their response to environmental variability and to assess natural hazards associated with them. Knowledge gained from this study could lead to better methodologies for predicting avalanches and landslides, according to Necsoiu.

The project will benchmark the applicability of these methods in measuring movements of several rock glaciers located in Retezat National Park in the Southern Carpathian Mountains. It promotes interdisciplinary research bringing together principles and specific methods of geomorphology, climatology, mountain ecology, remote sensing and geoinformatics.

The study’s results will serve as a baseline for future investigations of rock glacier movements in Central and Eastern European alpine regions where information on glacier rock dynamics is scarce or missing. Knowledge gained from this study could be applied to rock glaciers elsewhere, such as in the Front Range in Colorado or the La Sal Mountains in Utah.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation grant no. IIA-1346687.

About SwRI:

SwRI is an independent, nonprofit, applied research and development organization based in San Antonio, Texas, with nearly 3,000 employees and an annual research volume of $592 million. Southwest Research Institute and SwRI are registered marks in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. For more information about Southwest Research Institute, please visit newsroom.swri.org or www.swri.org.

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