Articles | Volume 8, issue 1
Research article
07 Jan 2014
Research article |  | 07 Jan 2014

Feedbacks and mechanisms affecting the global sensitivity of glaciers to climate change

B. Marzeion, A. H. Jarosch, and J. M. Gregory

Abstract. Mass loss by glaciers has been an important contributor to sea level rise in the past, and is projected to contribute a substantial fraction of total sea level rise during the 21st century. Here, we use a model of the world's glaciers to quantify equilibrium sensitivities of global glacier mass to climate change, and to investigate the role of changes in glacier hypsometry for long-term mass changes. We find that 21st century glacier-mass loss is largely governed by the glacier's response to 20th century climate change. This limits the influence of 21st century climate change on glacier-mass loss, and explains why there are relatively small differences in glacier-mass loss under greatly different scenarios of climate change. The projected future changes in both temperature and precipitation experienced by glaciers are amplified relative to the global average. The projected increase in precipitation partly compensates for the mass loss caused by warming, but this compensation is negligible at higher temperature anomalies since an increasing fraction of precipitation at the glacier sites is liquid. Loss of low-lying glacier area, and more importantly, eventual complete disappearance of glaciers, strongly limit the projected sea level contribution from glaciers in coming centuries. The adjustment of glacier hypsometry to changes in the forcing strongly reduces the rates of global glacier-mass loss caused by changes in global mean temperature compared to rates of mass loss when hypsometric changes are neglected. This result is a second reason for the relatively weak dependence of glacier-mass loss on future climate scenario, and helps explain why glacier-mass loss in the first half of the 20th century was of the same order of magnitude as in the second half of the 20th century, even though the rate of warming was considerably smaller.