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Committed retreat: Controls on glacier disequilibrium in a warming climate

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Author(s): John E. Christian, Michelle Koutnik, Gerard Roe

Document Type:
Publisher: Journal of Glaciology
Published Year: 2018
Volume: 64
Number: 246
Pages: 675 to 688
DOI Identifier: 10.1017/jog.2018.57
ISBN Identifier:
Keywords: climate change glacier fluctuations glacier modeling

The widespread retreat of mountain glaciers is a striking emblem of recent climate change. Yet mass-balance observations indicate that many glaciers are out of equilibrium with current climate, meaning that observed retreats do not show the full response to warming. This is a fundamental consequence of glacier dynamics: mountain glaciers typically have multidecadal response timescales, and so their response lags centennial-scale climate trends. A substantial difference between transient and equilibrium glacier length persists throughout the warming period; we refer to this length difference as 'disequilibrium'. Forcing idealized glacier geometries with gradual warming shows that the glacier response timescale fundamentally governs the evolution of disequilibrium. Comparing a hierarchy of different glacier models suggests that accurate estimates of ice thickness and climatology, which control the timescale, are more important than higher order ice dynamics for capturing disequilibrium. Current glacier disequilibrium has previously been estimated for a selection of individual glaciers; our idealized modeling shows that sustained disequilibrium is a fundamental response of glacier dynamics, and is robust across a range of glacier geometries. This implies that many mountain glaciers are committed to additional, kilometer-scale retreats, even without further warming. Disequilibrium must also be addressed when calibrating glacier models used for climate reconstructions and projections of retreat in response to future warming.

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Suggested Citations:
In Text Citation:
Christian and others (2018) or (Christian et al., 2018)

References Citation:
Christian, J.E., M. Koutnik, and G. Roe, 2018, Committed retreat: Controls on glacier disequilibrium in a warming climate: Journal of Glaciology, Vol. 64, No. 246, pp. 675-688, doi: 10.1017/jog.2018.57.