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Parsing complex terrain controls on mountain glacier response to climate forcing

April 30, 2020

Glaciers are a key indicator of changing climate in the high mountain landscape.
Glacier variations across a mountain range are ultimately driven by regional climate
forcing. However, changes also reflect local, topographically driven processes such as
snow avalanching, snow wind-drifting, and radiation shading as well as the initial
glacier conditions such as hypsometry and ice thickness. Here we assess the role of
these various terrain influences on change to Little Ice Age (LIA) glaciers in Glacier
National Park, U.S.A . With available data for LIA and modern glacier areas, we
estimate glacier volumes using simple ice flow assumptions, and topographically
driven processes using terrain proxies. At the LIA glacial maxima there were 82
glaciers larger than 0.1 km 2 ranging from 0.11 to 4.97 km 2 . Over the course of the
20 th century, every single LIA glacier decreased in area and 60% (49 glaciers)
diminished to below the 0.1 km 2 threshold. Glaciers with large initial area (>1.5 km
2 ) at the end of LIA persisted. Within the intermediate size class (0.5 km 2 < area <
1.5 km 2 ), LIA glacier persistence is poorly explained by initial glacier volume, ice
thickness, or elevation. Instead, wind exposure is an important explanatory factor.
Our analysis demonstrates the complex response of cirque glaciers to post-LIA climate
change in this region: individual glaciers have not necessarily undergone equivalent
and synchronous change. Nevertheless, that all glaciers in this mountain range
experienced retreat demonstrates that local processes mediated adjustments of some
glaciers, but completely decoupled none from the regional climate forcing.