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Rapid, climate-driven changes in outlet glaciers on the Pacific coast of East Antarctica

Abstract

Observations of ocean-terminating outlet glaciers in Greenland and West Antarctica1,2,3,4,5,6 indicate that their contribution to sea level is accelerating as a result of increased velocity, thinning and retreat7,8,9,10,11. Thinning has also been reported along the margin of the much larger East Antarctic ice sheet1, but whether glaciers are advancing or retreating there is largely unknown, and there has been no attempt to place such changes in the context of localized mass loss7,9 or climatic or oceanic forcing. Here we present multidecadal trends in the terminus position of 175 ocean-terminating outlet glaciers along 5,400 kilometres of the margin of the East Antarctic ice sheet, and reveal widespread and synchronous changes. Despite large fluctuations between glaciers—linked to their size—three epochal patterns emerged: 63 per cent of glaciers retreated from 1974 to 1990, 72 per cent advanced from 1990 to 2000, and 58 per cent advanced from 2000 to 2010. These trends were most pronounced along the warmer western South Pacific coast, whereas glaciers along the cooler Ross Sea coast experienced no significant changes. We find that glacier change along the Pacific coast is consistent with a rapid and coherent response to air temperature and sea-ice trends, linked through the dominant mode of atmospheric variability (the Southern Annular Mode). We conclude that parts of the world’s largest ice sheet may be more vulnerable to external forcing than recognized previously.

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Figure 1: Spatial and temporal variations in EAIS glacier terminus position from all measurements in 1974, 1990, 2000 and 2010.
Figure 2: Changes in glacier terminus position for each epoch for different sets of glaciers.
Figure 3: Time series of the SAM and summer air temperature data alongside changes in glacier terminus positions.

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Acknowledgements

Landsat imagery was provided free of charge by the US Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation Science Centre. We thank H. Pritchard for supplying data on glacier thinning.

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Authors

Contributions

C.R.S and A.V. had the idea for the research. B.W.J.M. designed and undertook the mapping and data collection, and led the climate analysis. N.J.C. led the statistical analysis and all authors contributed to the analysis and interpretation of the results. C.R.S. wrote the first draft of the paper and all authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. R. Stokes.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-6, Supplementary Figures 1-7, a Supplementary Appendix, which contains tables A1-A2. (PDF 1291 kb)

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Miles, B., Stokes, C., Vieli, A. et al. Rapid, climate-driven changes in outlet glaciers on the Pacific coast of East Antarctica. Nature 500, 563–566 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12382

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