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The response of glaciers to intrinsic climate variability: observations and models of late-Holocene variations in the Pacific Northwest

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Discriminating between glacier variations due to natural climate variability and those due to true climate change is crucial for the interpretation and attribution of past glacier changes, and for the expectations of future changes. We explore this issue for the well-documented glaciers of Mount Baker in the Cascades Mountains of Washington State, USA, using glacier histories, glacier modeling, weather data and numerical weather model output. We find that natural variability alone is capable of producing kilometer-scale excursions in glacier length on multi-decadal and centennial timescales. Such changes are similar in magnitude to those attributed to a global Little Ice Age. The null hypothesis, that no climate change is required to explain the glacier fluctuations in this setting, cannot be rejected. These results for Mount Baker glaciers are also consistent with an earlier study analyzing individual glaciers in Scandinavia and the Alps. The principle that long-timescale fluctuations of glacier length can be driven by short-timescale fluctuations in climate reflects a robust and fundamental property of stochastically forced physical systems with memory. It is very likely that this principle also applies to other Alpine glaciers and that it therefore complicates interpretations of the relationship between glacier and climate history. However, the amplitude and timescale of the length fluctuations depends on the details of the particular glacier geometry and climatic setting, and this remains largely unevaluated for most glaciers.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 2009

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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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