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Limited influence of climate change mitigation on short-term glacier mass loss

Nature Climate Changevolume 8pages305308 (2018) | Download Citation


Glacier mass loss is a key contributor to sea-level change1,2, slope instability in high-mountain regions3,4 and the changing seasonality and volume of river flow5,6,7. Understanding the causes, mechanisms and time scales of glacier change is therefore paramount to identifying successful strategies for mitigation and adaptation. Here, we use temperature and precipitation fields from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 output to force a glacier evolution model, quantifying mass responses to future climatic change. We find that contemporary glacier mass is in disequilibrium with the current climate, and 36 ± 8% mass loss is already committed in response to past greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, mitigating future emissions will have only very limited influence on glacier mass change in the twenty-first century. No significant differences between 1.5 and 2 K warming scenarios are detectable in the sea-level contribution of glaciers accumulated within the twenty-first century. In the long-term, however, mitigation will exert strong control, suggesting that ambitious measures are necessary for the long-term preservation of glaciers.

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This work was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (grant 01LS1602A) and German Research Foundation (grant MA 6966/1-1), and supported by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research as part of the UniInfrastrukturprogramm of the research platform Scientific Computing at the University of Innsbruck. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for the CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 1) for producing and making available their model output. For the CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provided coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We thank R. Stauffer and A. Kreuter for help with the figure design.

Author information


  1. Institute of Geography, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany

    • Ben Marzeion
    •  & Nicolas Champollion
  2. Department of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences, Universität Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria

    • Georg Kaser
    •  & Fabien Maussion


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B.M., G.K. and F.M. conceived the study and designed the experiments. B.M. performed the experiments and analysed the results. B.M. and N.C. wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ben Marzeion.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Table 1

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