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A time constant for hemispheric glacier mass balance

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The notion is developed of a mass-balance time constant applicable to the Northern Hemispheric glacier inventory taken as a whole. Ice dynamics are incorporated only implicitly in its estimation, which follows directly from a consideration of observed mass-balance and hemispheric temperature time series. While such a parameter must certainly be related to the rate at which glacier hypsometry adjusts to variations in climate, as are time constants derived via dynamic considerations, the parameter discussed herein differs with respect to its statistical character. For an ensemble of Northern Hemisphere glaciers a time-constant value on the order of a century is estimated. It is shown that such a value is consistent with the hemispheric near-equilibration of glaciers that prevailed around 1970. A 'reference climate' is defined, such that the mass balance in a given year is a function only of the difference between that year's climate and the reference. This difference was small during the hemispheric near-equilibrium that prevailed around 1970, implying that the glacier wastage of the late 20th century is essentially a response to post-1970 warming. It is shown that precipitation fluctuations play a compensating role in the hemispheric net mass budget, in that they are strongly anticorrelated with fluctuations in temperature-induced melting. However, the contribution of precipitation does not override that of temperature, which remains the dominant influence on hemisphere-wide glacier fluctuations.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: June 1, 2005

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  • The Journal of Glaciology is published six times per year. It accepts submissions from any discipline related to the study of snow and ice. All articles are peer reviewed. The Journal is included in the ISI Science Citation Index.
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