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Glacier Changes and Regional Climate: A Mass and Energy Balance Approach

Summer RupperDepartment of Geological Sciences, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

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Gerard RoeDepartment of Earth and Space Sciences, and Quaternary Research Center, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

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Abstract

The mass balance of a glacier is a complex consequence of the combination of atmospheric variables that control it. However, the understanding of past, present, and future glacier states is often predicated on very simplified representations of the mass balance–climate relationship. Here, a full surface energy and mass balance (SEMB) model is developed to explore the relationship between glacier equilibrium-line altitudes (ELAs) and climate at a regional scale. This model is applied to central Asia because of the diverse climate regimes and glacier history. The model captures the pattern in ELAs well; the seasonal cycle in energy balance terms are comparable to studies on individual glaciers in central Asia, and the proportionality factor relating melt to temperature is within the range of those reported for individual glaciers within the area. In regions where precipitation is low, ablation at the ELA is dominated by sublimation. Conversely, where precipitation is high, ablation at the ELA is dominated by melt and surface runoff. In turn, the sensitivity of the ELA to changes in climate is strongly tied to the dominant ablation process. In particular, ELAs in melt-dominated regions are most sensitive to interannual variability in air temperature, while ELAs in sublimation-dominated regions are most sensitive to interannual variability in precipitation. Glaciers in sublimation-dominated regions are acutely sensitive to even small changes in atmospheric variables. Finally, changes in clouds are shown to be important in all regions through their influence on the shortwave and longwave radiative fluxes, which dominate the surface energy balance at the ELA.

Corresponding author address: Summer Rupper, Department of Geological Sciences, Brigham Young University, S389 ESC, Provo, UT 84602. Email: summer_rupper@byu.edu

Abstract

The mass balance of a glacier is a complex consequence of the combination of atmospheric variables that control it. However, the understanding of past, present, and future glacier states is often predicated on very simplified representations of the mass balance–climate relationship. Here, a full surface energy and mass balance (SEMB) model is developed to explore the relationship between glacier equilibrium-line altitudes (ELAs) and climate at a regional scale. This model is applied to central Asia because of the diverse climate regimes and glacier history. The model captures the pattern in ELAs well; the seasonal cycle in energy balance terms are comparable to studies on individual glaciers in central Asia, and the proportionality factor relating melt to temperature is within the range of those reported for individual glaciers within the area. In regions where precipitation is low, ablation at the ELA is dominated by sublimation. Conversely, where precipitation is high, ablation at the ELA is dominated by melt and surface runoff. In turn, the sensitivity of the ELA to changes in climate is strongly tied to the dominant ablation process. In particular, ELAs in melt-dominated regions are most sensitive to interannual variability in air temperature, while ELAs in sublimation-dominated regions are most sensitive to interannual variability in precipitation. Glaciers in sublimation-dominated regions are acutely sensitive to even small changes in atmospheric variables. Finally, changes in clouds are shown to be important in all regions through their influence on the shortwave and longwave radiative fluxes, which dominate the surface energy balance at the ELA.

Corresponding author address: Summer Rupper, Department of Geological Sciences, Brigham Young University, S389 ESC, Provo, UT 84602. Email: summer_rupper@byu.edu

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