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An aerial view of 80 years of climate-related glacier fluctuations in southeast Greenland


Widespread retreat of glaciers has been observed along the southeastern margin of Greenland. This retreat has been associated with increased air and ocean temperatures. However, most observations are from the satellite era; presatellite observations of Greenlandic glaciers are rare. Here we present a unique record that documents the frontal positions for 132 southeast Greenlandic glaciers from rediscovered historical aerial imagery beginning in the early 1930s. We combine the historical aerial images with both early and modern satellite imagery to extract frontal variations of marine- and land-terminating outlet glaciers, as well as local glaciers and ice caps, over the past 80 years. The images reveal a regional response to external forcing regardless of glacier type, terminal environment and size. Furthermore, the recent retreat was matched in its vigour during a period of warming in the 1930s with comparable increases in air temperature. We show that many land-terminating glaciers underwent a more rapid retreat in the 1930s than in the 2000s, whereas marine-terminating glaciers retreated more rapidly during the recent warming.

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Figure 1: Historical aerial photographs from the seventh Thule Expedition, 1933.
Figure 2: Frontal changes of southeast Greenland glaciers.
Figure 3: Average frontal changes of glaciers and temperature records.
Figure 4: Retreat-rate difference between the large retreat periods 1933–1943 and 2000–2010.
Figure 5: A closer look at marine- and land-terminating glaciers.


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This study could not have been possible without the aid of The National Survey and Cadastre (KMS, Denmark) who gave access to the historical photographs from the seventh Thule Expedition. We are also grateful to the Scott Polar Research Institute (UK), and the Arctic Institute (Copenhagen, Denmark) who also supplied access to historical images. A. Pedersen (MapWorks, Denmark) wrote the script for the glacier length tool. Systéme Pour l’Observation de la Terre Spirit DEM was obtained from B. Csatho and S. Nagarajan, Geology Department, University at Buffalo, USA. The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer Global DEM data were obtained through the online data pool at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center, United States Geological Survey /Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We thank K. L. Bird and E. Willerslev who edited the manuscript. This work is a part of the RinkProject financially supported by the Danish Research Council (FNU) no. 272-08-0415 and the Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland (KVUG).

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A.A.B. and K.H.K. designed and conducted the study, N.J.K. conducted photogrammetry, K.K.K. undertook the geographic information system analysis, J.E.B., C.S.A. and S.A.K. carried out climate and SST analysis. All authors contributed to the discussion and writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Anders A. Bjørk.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Bjørk, A., Kjær, K., Korsgaard, N. et al. An aerial view of 80 years of climate-related glacier fluctuations in southeast Greenland. Nature Geosci 5, 427–432 (2012).

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