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Global sea-level contribution from the Patagonian Icefields since the Little Ice Age maximum


The melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps is expected to contribute significantly to sea-level rise in the twenty-first century1,2,3, although the magnitude of this contribution is not fully constrained. Glaciers in the Patagonian Icefields of South America are thought to have contributed about 10% of the total sea-level rise attributable to mountain glaciers in the past 50 years3. However, it is unclear whether recent rates of glacier recession in Patagonia are unusual relative to the past few centuries. Here we reconstruct the recession of these glaciers using remote sensing and field determinations of trimline and terminal moraine location. We estimate that the North Patagonian Icefield has lost 103±20.7 km3 of ice since its late Holocene peak extent in ad 1870 and that the South Patagonian Icefield has lost 503±101.1 km3 since its peak in ad 1650. This equates to a sea-level contribution of 0.0018±0.0004 mm yr−1 since 1870 from the north and 0.0034±0.0007 mm yr−1 since 1650 from the south. The centennial rates of sea-level contribution we derive are one order of magnitude lower than estimates of melting over the past 50 years3, even when we account for possible thinning above the trimline. We conclude that the melt rate and sea-level contribution of the Patagonian Icefields increased markedly in the twentieth century.

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Figure 1: Ice loss from outlet glaciers of the Patagonian Icefields, southern South America since the Little Ice Age maximum.
Figure 2: Field photograph of the Little Ice Age trimline on mountain sides above Nef Glacier, North Patagonian Icefield.
Figure 3: Sea-level contribution from mountain glaciers and ice caps over the past 360 yr.

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The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Leverhulme Trust supported this work financially. NASA provided ‘No Cost’ access to the ASTER imagery used to map former LIA glacier extent. ASTER GDEM is a product of METI and NASA and is available at no charge to users worldwide via electronic download from ERSDAC and LP DAAC respectively.

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Authors and Affiliations



N.F.G. performed the geomorphological mapping and contemporary glacier mapping and wrote the manuscript, S.H. contributed the original idea for this work, initiated the program of dating LIA moraines in Patagonia and helped with manuscript writing, K.N.J. helped with remote sensing and geomorphological mapping, K.A. advised on GIS analysis methods and A.C. undertook the computational modelling and scripting work using Arc-GIS, Python and Excel. N.F.G., S.H. and K.N.J. all took part in fieldwork in Patagonia.

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Correspondence to N. F. Glasser.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Glasser, N., Harrison, S., Jansson, K. et al. Global sea-level contribution from the Patagonian Icefields since the Little Ice Age maximum. Nature Geosci 4, 303–307 (2011).

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