Guest Commentary from Mauri S. Pelto
I get asked at least once a day about the future prognosis for alpine glaciers and whether they have a future. I will focus here on North American glaciers whose mass balance measurements in the West from 1984-2005 indicate a declining trend. The trend suggests that all of the glaciers are out of balance and that some will disappear. The question is determining which glaciers are merely out of equilibrium and can retreat to a position of equilibrium, and which are in complete disequilibrium and will melt away? Let me explain.
Glaciers have long been recognised as sensitive and reliable indicators of climate. This together with their wide distribution has made them a key marker of current climate change. The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) collects from alpine glaciers around the world annual mass balance data, which is the difference between annual accumulation and annual ablation (from melting and sublimation). A glacier is divided into an ablation zone where all accumulated snow is lost from the winter and an accumulation zone where snowpack is retained to the end of the summer. The alpine glaciers discussed here are not calving, nor do they have superimposed ice, two factors that complicate measurement. For an alpine glacier to have an equilibrium balance it typically must have upwards of 60% of its area in the accumulation zone at the end of the summer melt season.
Glaciers respond to climate change in an attempt to achieve a new equilibrium. A glacier advances due to a climate cooling/snowfall increase that causes positive mass balance. The advance increases the glaciers area at low elevation where ablation is highest, returning the glacier to equilibrium. A climate warming/snowfall decrease leads to negative mass balances and glacier retreat. An equilibrium response occurs when a new equilibrium is reached by a retreating glacier losing enough of its high ablating sections, usually at its lowest elevations, so that accumulation once again balances ablation. This is a glacier equivalent to jettisoning bad debt. If a glacier cannot retreat to a point where equilibrium is established, it is in disequilibrium with the current climate. A glacier that is in disequilibrium will melt away with a continuation of the current climate.
Therefore, it is important to note whether glaciers are undergoing an equilibrium or disequilibrium response to climate change. It was noted in the Tropical Glacier Retreat post that if the annual equilibrium line rises above the mountain top this will lead to glacier loss. The equilibrium line is the elevation on a glacier at which annual accumulation equals ablation. This is not the only means to an end for a glacier, nor is it a robust means for identifying glacier disequilibrium. A glacier that is approaching equilibrium during retreat will thin mostly near the terminus, and at some elevation above the terminus, usually near the equilibrium line or in the lower accumulation zone, there will be comparatively little thinning (Schwitter and Raymond, 1993). This indicates that at least a portion of the glacier is healthy. A glacier that is not approaching equilibrium will thin appreciably along the entire length of the glacier (Pelto, 2006). There are two means to identify glacier disequilibrium. The first is substantial thinning along entire longitudinal profile of the glacier. The second is frequent years with no accumulation area at all – that is, the equilibrium line is above the glacier.
Figure 1. CRYSYS (CRYospheric SYStem in Canada) mass balance program (M. Demuth) monitors the Place and Helm Glacier in the British Columbia, Coast Range north of Vancouver. The USGS benchmark program monitors South Cascade Glacier, North Cascades, WA (R. Krimmel), Wolverine Glacier, Kenai Mountains, AK and Gulkana Glacier, Alaska Range, AK (R. March). The Juneau Icefield Research Program monitors the mass balance of Lemon Creek Glacier, Coast Range, AK (M. Miller and M. Pelto). The North Cascade Glacier Climate Project monitors the mass balance of Columbia, Daniels, Easton, Foss, Ice Worm, Lower Curtis, Lynch, Rainbow, Sholes, and Yawning Glacier, North Cascades, WA (M. Pelto).
Figure 2. The annual mass balance signal is remarkably coherent from glacier to glacier.
Which glaciers are experiencing an equilibrium response? Glacier thinning in the accumulation zone is limited on Lemon Creek (Miller and Pelto, 1999), Gulkana and Wolverine (Sapiano, et. al, 1998), and Easton, Lynch and Rainbow Glacier (Pelto, 2006). Each appears able to retreat to a new point of equilibrium with the current climate. On Columbia, Daniels, Foss, Ice Worm, Lower Curtis, Sholes, and Yawning Glacier thinning is not notably less in the accumulation zone than the ablation zone, indicating disequilibrium (Pelto, 2006). Two North Cascade glaciers where mass balance measurements were conducted the Spider and the Lewis Glacier disappeared during this interval (Pelto, 2006). On Helm and Place Glacier the loss of more than 20% of their entire volume, since 1984 suggest they too are in disequilibrium. South Cascade Glacier has lost 70% of its volume since 1890 (Josberger et al., 2006), and is still experiencing large negative balances indicating disequilibrium. In Glacier National Park, North Cascades, Helm Glacier and Place Glacier frequent loss of the entire snowcover by the end of the ablation season has become commonplace (WGMS, 2005). The result is in net ablation throughout the accumulation area causing thinning of the glacier in the accumulation zone.
Are the glaciers responding primarily to climate changes of the last 30 years, or to the post Little Ice Age conditions? In the North Cascades Rainbow, Yawning, Easton and Lower Curtis Glacier all advanced during the 1950-1975. Sholes, Columbia, Ice Worm, did not advance or retreat significantly during this period. Thus, each of these glaciers is definitively responding to the climate of the last 30 years.
Figure 3. Lower Curtis Glacier in 2003 and in 1908 Photograph by namesake Asahel Curtis
Alpine glaciers are losing income during the winter (snowpack) and have increased expenses (ablation) in the summer, and there is no financial safety net for recovery. In the North Cascades of Washington the United States Geologic Survey (led by Austin Post) completed an inventory identifying 756 glaciers in the range based on photographs from the 1950’s and early 1960’s. In 2005 an examination of these same glaciers, indicates that at least 53 are no longer present, illustrated in google earth tour.
If we had an endangered glacier act, we would need to invoke it for alpine glaciers in many of our world’s glaciated mountain ranges.