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Centennial glacier retreat as categorical evidence of regional climate change

Nature Geoscience volume 10, pages 9599 (2017) | Download Citation


The near-global retreat of glaciers over the last century provides some of the most iconic imagery for communicating the reality of anthropogenic climate change to the public. Surprisingly, however, there has not been a quantitative foundation for attributing the retreats to climate change, except in the global aggregate. This gap, between public perception and scientific basis, is due to uncertainties in numerical modelling and the short length of glacier mass-balance records. Here we present a method for assessing individual glacier change based on the signal-to-noise ratio, a robust metric that is insensitive to uncertainties in glacier dynamics. Using only meteorological and glacier observations, and the characteristic decadal response time of glaciers, we demonstrate that observed retreats of individual glaciers represent some of the highest signal-to-noise ratios of climate change yet documented. Therefore, in many places, the centennial-scale retreat of the local glaciers does indeed constitute categorical evidence of climate change.

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We are grateful to P. Green, K. Armour, D. Battisti and E. Steig for valuable comments and conversations. F.H. thanks the Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences, University of Innsbruck for financial support.

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  1. Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Gerard H. Roe
    •  & Marcia B. Baker
  2. Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences, University of Innsbruck, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria

    • Florian Herla


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G.H.R., M.B.B. and F.H. planned the analyses, which G.H.R. performed. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and to writing the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gerard H. Roe.

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