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Glaciations in response to climate variations preconditioned by evolving topography


Landscapes modified by glacial erosion show a distinct distribution of surface area with elevation1,2,3 (hypsometry). In particular, the height of these regions is influenced by climatic gradients controlling the altitude where glacial and periglacial processes are the most active, and as a result, surface area is focused just below the snowline altitude1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. Yet the effect of this distinct glacial hypsometric signature on glacial extent and therefore on continued glacial erosion has not previously been examined. Here we show how this topographic configuration influences the climatic sensitivity of Alpine glaciers, and how the development of a glacial hypsometric distribution influences the intensity of glaciations on timescales of more than a few glacial cycles. We find that the relationship between variations in climate and the resulting variation in areal extent of glaciation changes drastically with the degree of glacial modification in the landscape. First, in landscapes with novel glaciations, a nearly linear relationship between climate and glacial area exists. Second, in previously glaciated landscapes with extensive area at a similar elevation, highly nonlinear and rapid glacial expansions occur with minimal climate forcing, once the snowline reaches the hypsometric maximum. Our results also show that erosion associated with glaciations before the mid-Pleistocene transition at around 950,000 years ago probably preconditioned the landscape—producing glacial landforms and hypsometric maxima—such that ongoing cooling led to a significant change in glacial extent and erosion, resulting in more extensive glaciations and valley deepening in the late Pleistocene epoch. We thus provide a mechanism that explains previous observations from exposure dating10 and low-temperature thermochronology11 in the European Alps, and suggest that there is a strong topographic control on the most recent Quaternary period glaciations.

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Figure 1: Ice volume as a function of climate change and hypsometry.
Figure 2: Transient changes in ice volume for a Quaternary-like climate forcing.
Figure 3: Variations in glacial erosion for a Quaternary-like climate.


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V.K.P. thanks the Danish Council for Independent Research and Inge Lehmanns Fund for funding this research. D.L.E. acknowledges funding from the Danish Council for Independent Research under the Sapere Aude Programme. We thank S. Brocklehurst and P. van der Beek for reviews that improved the manuscript considerably.

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Authors and Affiliations



V.K.P. and D.L.E. performed the global topographic analysis. D.L.E. developed the numerical modelling scheme used. V.K.P. performed the modelling. Both authors contributed equally to the design of the study and writing of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Vivi Kathrine Pedersen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Methods, a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1-2 and Supplementary Figures 1-29, which contain additional information on methodology and discuss some additional aspects of the results presented in the main text. (PDF 30796 kb)

Glaciating the fluvial Sierra Nevada, Spain

This video shows the landscape from the fluvial Sierra Nevada in Spain. The camera flies over the computer rendered landscape. By varying the snowline altitude, it is illustrated how the extent of glaciation relates to climate a simpler way than for the Bitterroot Range (Video 2). This is because the Sierra Nevada topography is without a hypsometric maximum. The landscape shown is a computer rendered version of the model used in Figure 1. (MOV 25442 kb)

Glaciating the glacial Bitterroot Range, USA

This video shows the landscape from the glacially eroded Bitterroot Range. It presents the glacial topography, and illustrates how glaciation is nonlinearly related to snowline altitude, owing to the well-developed hypsometric maximum found in the area. The landscape shown is a computer rendered version of the model used in Figure 1. (MOV 25126 kb)

Simulated Quaternary changes in ice volume following glacial erosion

This video shows the modeled landscape and the ice extent as the altitude of the snowline varies. First a series of 40 kyr glacial cycles are shown, and then the video jumps to the transition to colder 100 kyr cycles. The video shows how a negative feedback from erosion decreases the extent of glaciation under constant magnitude glacial cycles, and how this feedback is broken when lowering of the snowline reincorporates the previously eroded topography in the accumulation zone of glaciers. (MOV 28599 kb)

Glacial modification of a synthetic fluvial landscape

This video shows the synthetic landscape used for simulating transient effects of landscape development on the extent of glaciation. The camera first flies over the initial fluvial landscape, and then the final glacially eroded landscape. The video thus illustrates the total transformation from fluvial to glacial topography. The landscapes shown are computer rendered versions of the model used in Figure 2 and 3. (MOV 23454 kb)

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Pedersen, V., Egholm, D. Glaciations in response to climate variations preconditioned by evolving topography. Nature 493, 206–210 (2013).

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