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Concept: Glacier mass balance


Global climate change is causing a wastage of glaciers and threatening biodiversity in glacier-fed ecosystems. The high turbidity typically found in those ecosystems, which is caused by inorganic particles and result of the erosive activity of glaciers is a key environmental factor influencing temperature and light availability, as well as other factors in the water column. Once these lakes loose hydrological connectivity to glaciers and turn clear, the accompanying environmental changes could represent a potential bottleneck for the established local diversity with yet unknown functional consequences. Here, we study three lakes situated along a turbidity gradient as well as one clear unconnected lake and evaluate seasonal changes in their bacterial community composition and diversity. Further, we assess potential consequences for community functioning. Glacier runoff represented a diverse source community for the lakes and several taxa were able to colonize downstream turbid habitats, although they were not found in the clear lake. Operational taxonomic unit-based alpha diversity and phylogenetic diversity decreased along the turbidity gradient, but metabolic functional diversity was negatively related to turbidity. No evidence for multifunctional redundancy, which may allow communities to maintain functioning upon alterations in diversity, was found. Our study gives a first view on how glacier-fed lake bacterial communities are affected by the melting of glaciers and indicates that diversity and community composition significantly change when hydrological connectivity to the glacier is lost and lakes turn clear.The ISME Journal advance online publication, 15 January 2016; doi:10.1038/ismej.2015.245.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Lake, Climate, Water pollution, Antarctica, Surface runoff, Turbidity, Glacier mass balance


Global climate change is driving species poleward and upward in high-latitude regions, but the extent to which the biodiverse tropics are similarly affected is poorly known due to a scarcity of historical records. In 1802, Alexander von Humboldt ascended the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador. He recorded the distribution of plant species and vegetation zones along its slopes and in surrounding parts of the Andes. We revisited Chimborazo in 2012, precisely 210 y after Humboldt’s expedition. We documented upward shifts in the distribution of vegetation zones as well as increases in maximum elevation limits of individual plant taxa of >500 m on average. These range shifts are consistent with increased temperatures and glacier retreat on Chimborazo since Humboldt’s study. Our findings provide evidence that global warming is strongly reshaping tropical plant distributions, consistent with Humboldt’s proposal that climate is the primary control on the altitudinal distribution of vegetation.

Concepts: Earth, Climate change, Solar variation, Andes, Global warming, Glacier mass balance, Alexander von Humboldt, Chimborazo


Glaciers experienced worldwide retreat during the twentieth and early twenty first centuries, and the negative trend in global glacier mass balance since the early 1990s is predominantly a response to anthropogenic climate warming. The exceptional terminus advance of some glaciers during recent global warming is thought to relate to locally specific climate conditions, such as increased precipitation. In New Zealand, at least 58 glaciers advanced between 1983 and 2008, and Franz Josef and Fox glaciers advanced nearly continuously during this time. Here we show that the glacier advance phase resulted predominantly from discrete periods of reduced air temperature, rather than increased precipitation. The lower temperatures were associated with anomalous southerly winds and low sea surface temperature in the Tasman Sea region. These conditions result from variability in the structure of the extratropical atmospheric circulation over the South Pacific. While this sequence of climate variability and its effect on New Zealand glaciers is unusual on a global scale, it remains consistent with a climate system that is being modified by humans.

Concepts: Earth, Precipitation, Climate, Climate change, Gas, Ocean, Global warming, Glacier mass balance


Glaciers are among the best indicators of terrestrial climate variability, contribute importantly to water resources in many mountainous regions and are a major contributor to global sea level rise. In the Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalaya region (HKKH), a paucity of appropriate glacier data has prevented a comprehensive assessment of current regional mass balance. There is, however, indirect evidence of a complex pattern of glacial responses in reaction to heterogeneous climate change signals. Here we use satellite laser altimetry and a global elevation model to show widespread glacier wastage in the eastern, central and south-western parts of the HKKH during 2003-08. Maximal regional thinning rates were 0.66 ± 0.09 metres per year in the Jammu-Kashmir region. Conversely, in the Karakoram, glaciers thinned only slightly by a few centimetres per year. Contrary to expectations, regionally averaged thinning rates under debris-mantled ice were similar to those of clean ice despite insulation by debris covers. The 2003-08 specific mass balance for our entire HKKH study region was -0.21 ± 0.05 m yr(-1) water equivalent, significantly less negative than the estimated global average for glaciers and ice caps. This difference is mainly an effect of the balanced glacier mass budget in the Karakoram. The HKKH sea level contribution amounts to one per cent of the present-day sea level rise. Our 2003-08 mass budget of -12.8 ± 3.5 gigatonnes (Gt) per year is more negative than recent satellite-gravimetry-based estimates of -5 ± 3 Gt yr(-1) over 2003-10 (ref. 12). For the mountain catchments of the Indus and Ganges basins, the glacier imbalance contributed about 3.5% and about 2.0%, respectively, to the annual average river discharge, and up to 10% for the Upper Indus basin.

Concepts: Water, Ice, Glacier, Climate change, Region, Glacier mass balance, Indus River, Ice cap


The ongoing global glacier retreat is affecting human societies by causing sea-level rise, changing seasonal water availability, and increasing geohazards. Melting glaciers are an icon of anthropogenic climate change. However, glacier response times are typically decades or longer, which implies that the present-day glacier retreat is a mixed response to past and current natural climate variability and current anthropogenic forcing. Here, we show that only 25 ± 35% of the global glacier mass loss during the period from 1851 to 2010 is attributable to anthropogenic causes. Nevertheless, the anthropogenic signal is detectable with high confidence in glacier mass balance observations during 1991 to 2010, and the anthropogenic fraction of global glacier mass loss during that period has increased to 69 ± 24%.

Concepts: Water, Weather, Climate change, Solar variation, Global warming, Anthropogenic, Glacier mass balance, Retreat of glaciers since 1850


Køge Bugt, in southeast Greenland, hosts three of the largest glaciers of the Greenland Ice Sheet; these have been major contributors to ice loss in the last two decades. Despite its importance, the Holocene history of this area has not been investigated. We present a 9100 year sediment core record of glaciological and oceanographic changes from analysis of foraminiferal assemblages, the abundance of ice-rafted debris, and sortable silt grain size data. Results show that ice-rafted debris accumulated constantly throughout the core; this demonstrates that glaciers in Køge Bugt remained in tidewater settings throughout the last 9100 years. This observation constrains maximum Holocene glacier retreat here to less than 6 km from present-day positions. Retreat was minimal despite oceanic and climatic conditions during the early-Holocene that were at least as warm as the present-day. The limited Holocene retreat of glaciers in Køge Bugt was controlled by the subglacial topography of the area; the steeply sloping bed allowed glaciers here to stabilise during retreat. These findings underscore the need to account for individual glacier geometry when predicting future behaviour. We anticipate that glaciers in Køge Bugt will remain in stable configurations in the near-future, despite the predicted continuation of atmospheric and oceanic warming.

Concepts: Greenland ice sheet, Glacier, Erosion, Glaciology, Little Ice Age, Glacier mass balance, Retreat of glaciers since 1850, Jakobshavn Isbræ


To date, there is a gap in the data about the state and mass balance of glaciers in the climate-sensitive subtropical regions during the Little Ice Age (LIA). Here, based on an unprecedented tree-ring sampling coverage, we present the longest reconstructed mass balance record for the Western Himalayan glaciers, dating to 1615. Our results confirm that the later phase of LIA was substantially briefer and weaker in the Himalaya than in the Arctic and subarctic regions. Furthermore, analysis of the time-series of the mass-balance against other time-series shows clear evidence of the existence of (i) a significant glacial decay and a significantly weaker magnitude of glaciation during the latter half of the LIA; (ii) a weak regional mass balance dependence on either the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) or the Total Solar Irradiance (TSI) taken in isolation, but a considerable combined influence of both of them during the LIA; and (iii) in addition to anthropogenic climate change, the strong effect from the increased yearly concurrence of extremely high TSI with El Niño over the past five decades, resulting in severe glacial mass loss. The generated mass balance time-series can serve as a source of reliable reconstructed data to the scientific community.

Concepts: Earth, Glacier, Climate change, Solar variation, Ice age, Global warming, Little Ice Age, Glacier mass balance


Cryoconite, the typical sediment found on the surface of glaciers, is mainly known in relation to its role in glacial microbiology and in altering the glacier albedo. But if these aspects are relatively well addressed, the same cannot be said about the geochemical properties of cryoconite and the possible interactions with glacial and peri-glacial environment. Current glacier retreat is responsible for the secondary emission of species deposited in high-altitude regions in the last decades. The role played by cryoconite in relation to such novel geochemical fluxes is largely unknown. Few and scarce observations suggest that it could interact with these processes, accumulating specific substances, but why, how and to what extent remain open questions. Through a multi-disciplinary approach we tried to shed lights. Results reveal that the peculiar composition of cryoconite is responsible for an extreme accumulation capability of this sediment, in particular for some, specific, anthropogenic substances.

Concepts: Water, Glacier, Erosion, Antarctica, South Island, Glacier mass balance, Till, Glaciers


The Indus basin heavily depends on its upstream mountainous part for the downstream supply of water while downstream demands are high. Since downstream demands will likely continue to increase, accurate hydrological projections for the future supply are important. We use an ensemble of statistically downscaled CMIP5 General Circulation Model outputs for RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 to force a cryospheric-hydrological model and generate transient hydrological projections for the entire 21st century for the upper Indus basin. Three methodological advances are introduced: (i) A new precipitation dataset that corrects for the underestimation of high-altitude precipitation is used. (ii) The model is calibrated using data on river runoff, snow cover and geodetic glacier mass balance. (iii) An advanced statistical downscaling technique is used that accounts for changes in precipitation extremes. The analysis of the results focuses on changes in sources of runoff, seasonality and hydrological extremes. We conclude that the future of the upper Indus basin’s water availability is highly uncertain in the long run, mainly due to the large spread in the future precipitation projections. Despite large uncertainties in the future climate and long-term water availability, basin-wide patterns and trends of seasonal shifts in water availability are consistent across climate change scenarios. Most prominent is the attenuation of the annual hydrograph and shift from summer peak flow towards the other seasons for most ensemble members. In addition there are distinct spatial patterns in the response that relate to monsoon influence and the importance of meltwater. Analysis of future hydrological extremes reveals that increases in intensity and frequency of extreme discharges are very likely for most of the upper Indus basin and most ensemble members.

Concepts: Water, Snow, Precipitation, Climate, Hydrology, Climate change, Global warming, Glacier mass balance


High Mountain Asia hosts the largest glacier concentration outside the polar regions. These glaciers are important contributors to streamflow in one of the most populated areas of the world. Past studies have used methods that can only provide regionally-averaged glacier mass balances to assess the High Mountain Asia glacier contribution to rivers and sea level rise. Here we compute the mass balance for about 92 % of the glacierized area of High Mountain Asia using time series of digital elevation models derived from satellite stereo-imagery. We calculate an average region-wide mass balance of -16.3 ± 3.5 Gt yr(-1) (-0.18 ± 0.04 m w.e. yr(-1)) between 2000 and 2016, which is less negative than most previous estimates. Region-wide mass balances vary from -4.0 ± 1.5 Gt yr(-1) (-0.62 ± 0.23 m w.e. yr(-1)) in Nyainqentanglha to +1.4 ± 0.8 Gt yr(-1) (+0.14 ± 0.08 m w.e. yr(-1)) in Kunlun, with large intra-regional variability of individual glacier mass balances (standard deviation within a region ˜0.20 m w.e. yr(-1)). Specifically, our results shed light on the Nyainqentanglha and Pamir glacier mass changes, for which contradictory estimates exist in the literature. They provide crucial information for the calibration of the models used for projections of future glacier response to climatic changes, models that presently do not capture the pattern, magnitude and intra-regional variability of glacier changes in High Mountain Asia.

Concepts: Earth, Glacier, Mass, Climate change, Standard deviation, Polar region, Antarctica, Glacier mass balance