Articles | Volume 7, issue 5
Research article
24 Sep 2013
Research article |  | 24 Sep 2013

Changes in glacier equilibrium-line altitude in the western Alps from 1984 to 2010: evaluation by remote sensing and modeling of the morpho-topographic and climate controls

A. Rabatel, A. Letréguilly, J.-P. Dedieu, and N. Eckert

Abstract. We present time series of equilibrium-line altitude (ELA) measured from the end-of-summer snow line altitude computed using satellite images, for 43 glaciers in the western Alps over the 1984–2010 period. More than 120 satellite images acquired by Landsat, SPOT and ASTER were used. In parallel, changes in climate variables, summer cumulative positive degree days (CPDD) and winter precipitation, were analyzed over the same time period using 22 weather stations located inside and around the study area. Assuming a continuous linear trend over the study period: (1) the average ELA of the 43 glaciers increased by about 170 m; (2) summer CPDD increased by about 150 PDD at 3000 m a.s.l.; and (3) winter precipitation remained rather stationary. Summer CPDD showed homogeneous spatial and temporal variability; winter precipitation showed homogeneous temporal variability, but some stations showed a slightly different spatial pattern. Regarding ELAs, temporal variability between the 43 glaciers was also homogeneous, but spatially, glaciers in the southern part of the study area differed from glaciers in the northern part, mainly due to a different precipitation pattern. A sensitivity analysis of the ELAs to climate and morpho-topographic variables (elevation, aspect, latitude) highlighted the following: (1) the average ELA over the study period of each glacier is strongly controlled by morpho-topographic variables; and (2) the interannual variability of the ELA is strongly controlled by climate variables, with the observed increasing trend mainly driven by increasing temperatures, even if significant nonlinear, low-frequency fluctuations appear to be driven by winter precipitation anomalies. Finally, we used an expansion of Lliboutry's approach to reconstruct fluctuations in the ELA of any glacier of the study area with respect to morpho-topographic and climate variables, by quantifying their respective weight and the related uncertainties in a consistent manner within a hierarchical Bayesian framework. This method was tested and validated using the ELA measured on the satellite images.