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Irregular tropical glacier retreat over the Holocene epoch driven by progressive warming


The causes and timing of tropical glacier fluctuations during the Holocene epoch (10,000 years ago to present) are poorly understood. Yet constraining their sensitivity to changes in climate1 is important, as these glaciers are both sensitive indicators of climate change and serve as water reservoirs for highland regions2. Studies have so far documented extra-tropical glacier fluctuations3,4, but in the tropics, glacier–climate relationships are insufficiently understood. Here we present a 10Be chronology for the past 11,000 years (11 kyr), using 57 moraines from the Bolivian Telata glacier (in the Cordillera Real mountain range). This chronology indicates that Telata glacier retreated irregularly. A rapid and strong melting from the maximum extent occurred from 10.8 ± 0.9 to 8.5 ± 0.4 kyr ago, followed by a slower retreat until the Little Ice Age, about 200 years ago. A dramatic increase in the rate of retreat occurred over the twentieth century. A glacier–climate model indicates that, relative to modern climate, annual mean temperature for the Telata glacier region was −3.3 ± 0.8 °C cooler at 11 kyr ago and remained −2.1 ± 0.8 °C cooler until the end of the Little Ice Age. We suggest that long-term warming of the eastern tropical Pacific and increased atmospheric temperature in response to enhanced austral summer insolation were the main drivers for the long-term Holocene retreat of glaciers in the southern tropics.

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Figure 1: Telata glacier and sampling sites.
Figure 2: Palaeoclimatic reconstructions of the Telata glacier.
Figure 3: Changes in surface temperature and atmospheric moisture transport simulated for December by the IPSL-CM4 GCM.
Figure 4: Changes of the Telata glacier compared to tropical climate proxies.


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Financial support was provided by the French INSU programme ‘LEVE’, the French ANR Escarcel programme no. 06-Vuln-010, UR Great Ice at IRD, and the French ANR El Paso programme no. 10-Blan-608-01. We thank P. Ginot, E. Perroy, E. Ramirez and the Bolivian authorities for facilitating our field work in the Zongo valley. The 10Be measurements were performed at the ASTER AMS national facility (CEREGE, Aix en Provence), which is supported by INSU/CNRS, the French Ministry of Research and Higher Education, IRD and CEA. We are grateful to L. Léanni for handling the necessary physical and chemical preparations before the 10Be measurements, and to M. Arnold, G. Aumaître and K. Keddadouche for help during the 10Be AMS measurements. We acknowledge the international modelling groups for providing their data for analysis. The PMIP2/MOTIF Data Archive is supported by CEA and CNRS, and was funded by the EU project MOTIF (EVK2-CT-2002-00153) and the Programme National d’Etude de la Dynamique du Climate (PNEDC). The analyses were performed using model versions available on 23 May 2009 ( Computing time to run the IPSL model was provided by CEA. We are grateful for the assistance received from IHH (Instituto de Hidraulica e Hídrologia) and UMSA (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, La Paz).

Author information




V.J. and D.B. conducted the field work on Telata; M.K. and P.B. performed the GCM modelling; P.-H.B. developed the PDD numerical modelling. J.-E.S., P.W. and V.F. provided ablation and climatic data from the Zongo glacier and helped in developing the glacier mass balance model and with the energy balance interpretation. D.L.B. and R.B. participated in analysing and interpreting the cosmogenic data. V.J., M.K., V.F., D.B., D.G., M.-P.L., P.W., P.-H.B., J.-E.S., R.B., D.L.B. and M.V. interpreted the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Vincent Jomelli.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1-6 with legends, Supplementary Tables 1-7, Supplementary References and Supplementary Pictures of 10Be samples used to document the retreat of Telata glacier. (PDF 5358 kb)

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Jomelli, V., Khodri, M., Favier, V. et al. Irregular tropical glacier retreat over the Holocene epoch driven by progressive warming. Nature 474, 196–199 (2011).

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