Permafrost activity and atmospheric warming in the Argentinian Andes

Rock glaciers are permafrost or glacial landforms of debris and ice that deform under the influence of gravity. Recent estimates hold that, in the semiarid Chilean Andes for example, active rock glaciers store more water than glaciers. However, little is known about how many rock glaciers might decay because of global warming and how much this decay might contribute to water and sediment release. We investigated an inventory of >6500 rock glaciers in the Argentinian Andes, spanning the climatic gradient from the Desert Andes to cold-temperate Tierra del Fuego. We used active rock glaciers as a diagnostic of permafrost, assuming that the toes mark the 0 °C isotherm in climate scenarios for the twenty-first century and their impact on freezing conditions near the rock glacier toes. We find that, under future worst case warming, up to 95% of rock glaciers in the southern Desert Andes and in the Central Andes will rest in areas above 0 °C and that this freezing level might move up more than twice as much (~500 m) as during the entire Holocene (~200 m). Many active rock glaciers are already well below the current freezing level and exemplify how local controls may confound regional prognoses. A Bayesian Multifactor Analysis of Variance further shows that only in the Central Andes are the toes of active rock glaciers credibly higher than those of inactive ones. Elsewhere in the Andes, active and inactive rock glaciers occupy indistinguishable elevation bands, regardless of aspect, the formation mechanism, or shape of rock glaciers. The state of rock glacier activity predicts differences in elevations of toes to 140 m at best so that regional inference of the distribution of discontinuous permafrost from rock-glacier toes cannot be more accurate than this in the Argentinian Andes. We conclude that the Central Andes—where rock glaciers are largest, cover the most area, and have a greater density than glaciers—is likely to experience the most widespread disturbance to the thermal regime of the twenty-first century.