Regional climate control of glaciers in New Zealand and Europe during the pre-industrial Holocene

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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Mountain glaciers worldwide have undergone net recession over the past century in response to atmospheric warming1, but the extent to which this warming reflects natural versus anthropogenic climate change remains uncertain2, 3. Between about 11,500 years ago and the nineteenth century, progressive atmospheric cooling over the European Alps induced glacier expansion2, 4, 5, 6, culminating with several large-scale advances during the seventeen to nineteenth centuries3. However, it is unclear whether this glacier behaviour reflects global or a more regional forcing. Here we reconstruct glacier fluctuations in the Southern Alps of New Zealand for the past 11,000 years using 10Be exposure ages. We use those fluctuations to estimate the associated temperature variations. On orbital to submillennial timescales, changes in glacier snowlines in New Zealand were linked to regional climate and oceanographic variability and were asynchronous with snowline variations in European glaciers. We attribute this asynchrony to the migration of the intertropical convergence zone. In light of this persistent asynchrony, we suggest that the net glacier recession and atmospheric warming in both regions over the past century is anomalous in the context of earlier Holocene variability and corresponds with anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

At a glance


  1. Map of the southwest Pacific region.
    Figure 1: Map of the southwest Pacific region.

    Coloured arrows depict generalized ocean currents. Yellow dots mark locations of pertinent records mentioned in text. LC, Leeuwin Current; SEC, South Equatorial Current.

  2. Glacial geomorphologic map of the Cameron Glacier valley, Southern Alps, New Zealand.
    Figure 2: Glacial geomorphologic map of the Cameron Glacier valley, Southern Alps, New Zealand.

    All features and boundaries are described in the legend (inset). White boxes show 10Be surface-exposure ages (in years before AD1950) and yellow dots are sample locations. Ages in italics are statistical outliers. Twentieth-century terminus positions are represented by bold black lines on the map and their ages are in grey boxes. Red numbers correspond to 10Be sample identification labels. Map is adapted from ref. 30.

  3. Glacier-inferred temperature records compared with proxies for the position of the ITCZ.
    Figure 3: Glacier-inferred temperature records compared with proxies for the position of the ITCZ.

    a, European Alps glacier extents compared with today: Switzerland ((1) ref. 6 and (2) refs 2, 4, 5), Austria14 and Italy13. b, European Alps snowlines and temperatures constructed from refs 3, 4. c, Boreal summer insolation. d, Cariaco Basin percentage Ti (bulk fraction) and e, Peruvian lacustrine δ18O (ref. 21), reflecting ITCZ latitude. f, Marine proxy for westerlies from core MD03-2611 (ref. 20). g, Southern Alps composite snowlines/temperatures. CG, Cameron Glacier; A/MC, Aoraki/Mount Cook glaciers. h, Austral summer insolation. Dotted blue line denotes the onset of late-Holocene recession (advance) of the Southern Alps (European) glaciers.


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Author information


  1. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, 61 Rt. 9W, Palisades, New York 10944, USA

    • Aaron E. Putnam,
    • Joerg M. Schaefer &
    • Roseanne Schwartz
  2. Department of Earth Sciences and Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA

    • Aaron E. Putnam &
    • George H. Denton
  3. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Joerg M. Schaefer
  4. GNS Science, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin, New Zealand

    • David J. A. Barrell
  5. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, California 95064, USA

    • Robert C. Finkel
  6. Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, 0316-Oslo, Norway

    • Bjørn G. Andersen
  7. Alpine and Polar Processes Consultancy, Lake Hawea, New Zealand

    • Trevor J. H. Chinn
  8. Antarctic Research Centre and School of Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand

    • Alice M. Doughty
  9. Deceased

    • Bjørn G. Andersen


A.E.P. helped design the project, conducted field work and laboratory analyses, conducted snowline reconstructions and wrote the paper. J.M.S. and G.H.D. helped design the project and participated in field work. D.J.A.B. and B.G.A. conducted geomorphic mapping. R.S. carried out laboratory work. A.M.D. participated in the field work. T.J.H.C. conducted snowline reconstructions. R.C.F. conducted accelerator mass spectrometer analyses. G.H.D., D.J.A.B., J.M.S. and A.M.D. helped write the paper.

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