Mountain Glaciers and Ice Caps

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In addition to the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Arctic contains a diverse array of smaller glaciers ranging from small cirque glaciers to large ice caps with areas up to 20 000 km 2 . Together, these glaciers cover an area of more than 400 000 km 2 , over half the global area of mountain glaciers and ice caps. Their total volume is sufficient to raise global sea level by an average of about 0.41 m if they were to melt completely. These glaciers exist in a range of different climatic regimes, from the maritime environments of southern Alaska, Iceland, western Scandinavia, and Svalbard, to the polar desert of the Canadian Arctic. Glaciers in all regions of the Arctic have decreased in area and mass as a result of the warming that has occurred since the 1920s (in two pulses – from the 1920s to the 1940s and since the mid-1980s). A new phase of accelerated mass loss began in the mid-1990s, and has been most marked in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and probably Greenland. Current rates of mass loss are estimated to be in the range 150 to 300 Gt/y; comparable to current mass loss rates from the Greenland Ice Sheet. This implies that the Arctic is now the largest regional source of glacier contributions to global sea-level rise. Most of the current mass loss is probably attributable to a change in surface mass balance (the balance between annual mass addition, primarily by snowfall, and annual mass loss by surface melting and meltwater runoff). Iceberg calving is also a significant source of mass loss in areas such as coastal Alaska, Arctic Canada, Svalbard, and the Russian Arctic. However, neither the current rate of calving loss nor its temporal variability have been well quantified in many regions, so this is a significant source of uncertainty in estimates of the total rate of mass loss. It is, however, clear that the larger Arctic ice caps have similar variability in ice dynamics to that of the Greenland Ice Sheet. That is to say, areas of relatively slow glacier flow (which terminate mainly on land) are separated by faster-flowing outlet glaciers (which terminate mainly in the ocean). Several of these outlet glaciers exhibit surge-type behavior, while others have exhibited substantial velocity changes on seasonal and longer timescales. It is very likely that these changes in ice dynamics affect the rate of mass loss by calving both from individual glaciers and the total ice cover. Projections of future rates of mass loss from mountain glaciers and ice caps in the Arctic focus primarily on projections of changes in the surface mass balance. Current models are not yet capable of making realistic forecasts of changes in losses by calving. Surface mass balance models are forced with downscaled output from climate models driven by forcing scenarios that make assumptions about the future rate of growth of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Thus, mass loss projections vary considerably, depending on the forcing scenario used and the climate model from which climate projections are derived. A new study in which a surface mass balance model is driven by output from ten general circulation models (GCMs) forced by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) A1B emissions scenario yields estimates of total mass loss of between 51 and 136 mm sea-level equivalent (SLE) (or 13% to 36% of current glacier volume) by 2100. This implies that there will still be substantial glacier mass in the Arctic in 2100 and that Arctic mountain glaciers and ice caps will continue to influence global sea-level change well into the 22nd century.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Book chapter
Publication Subtype:
Book Chapter
Mountain Glaciers and Ice Caps
Year Published:
Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme
Contributing office(s):
Washington Water Science Center
63 p.
Larger Work Type:
Larger Work Subtype:
Other Government Series
Larger Work Title:
Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) 2011
First page:
Last page: