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The Cryosphere An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2020-265
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2020-265
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

  16 Oct 2020

16 Oct 2020

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This preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

On the attribution of industrial-era glacier mass loss to anthropogenic climate change

Gerard H. Roe1, John Erich Christian1, and Ben Marzeion2 Gerard H. Roe et al.
  • 1Dept. Of Earth and Space Sciences, U. Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
  • 2Institute of Geography and Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, U. Bremen, Germany

Abstract. Around the world, small ice caps and glaciers have been losing mass and retreating during the industrial era. Estimates are that this has contributed approximately 30 % of the observed sea-level rise over the same period. It is important to understand the relative importance of natural and anthropogenic components of this mass loss. One recent study concluded that the best estimate of the anthropogenic contribution over the industrial era was only 25 %, implying a predominantly natural cause. Here we show that the fraction of the anthropogenic contribution to the total mass loss of a given glacier depends only on the magnitudes and rates of the natural and anthropogenic components of climate change, and on the glacier's response time. We consider climate change over the past millennium using synthetic scenarios, paleoclimate reconstructions, numerical climate simulations, and instrumental observations. We use these climate histories to drive a glacier model that can represent a wide range of glacier response times to evaluate the anthropogenic contribution to glacier mass loss. The slow cooling over the preceding millennium, followed by the rapid anthropogenic warming of the industrial era means that, over the full range of response times for small ice caps and glaciers, the central estimate of the anthropogenic component of the mass loss is essentially 100 %. Our results bring assessments of attribution of glacier mass loss into alignment with assessments of others aspects of climate change, such as global-mean temperature. Furthermore, these results reinforce the scientific and public understanding of centennial-scale glacier retreat as an unambiguous consequence of human activity.

Gerard H. Roe et al.

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Latest update: 25 Oct 2020
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Short summary
The worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers and consequent loss of ice mass is one of the most obvious signs of a changing climate, and has significant implications for the hydrology and natural hazards in mountain landscapes. Consistent with our understanding of the human-role in temperature change, we demonstrate that the central estimate of the size of the human-caused mass loss is essentially 100 % of the observed. This assessment resolves some important inconsistencies in the literature.
The worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers and consequent loss of ice mass is one of the most...
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