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Contribution of Alaskan glaciers to sea-level rise derived from satellite imagery

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Over the past 50 years, retreating glaciers and ice caps contributed 0.5 mm yr−1 to sea-level rise1, and one third of this contribution is believed to come from ice masses bordering the Gulf of Alaska2,3. However, these estimates of ice loss in Alaska are based on measurements of a limited number of glaciers that are extrapolated to constrain ice wastage in the many thousands of others. Uncertainties in these estimates arise, for example, from the complex pattern of decadal elevation changes at the scale of individual glaciers and mountain ranges4,5,6,7. Here we combine a comprehensive glacier inventory with elevation changes derived from sequential digital elevation models. We find that between 1962 and 2006, Alaskan glaciers lost 41.9±8.6 km3 yr−1 of water, and contributed 0.12±0.02 mm yr−1 to sea-level rise, 34% less than estimated earlier2,3. Reasons for our lower values include the higher spatial resolution of our glacier inventory as well as the reduction of ice thinning underneath debris and at the glacier margins, which were not resolved in earlier work. We suggest that estimates of mass loss from glaciers and ice caps in other mountain regions could be subject to similar revisions.

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Figure 1: Regional area-average glacier mass balance in northwest North America between 1962 and 2006.
Figure 2: Map of surface elevation change in the Western Chugach Mountains between the 1950s and 2007.
Figure 3: Hypsometry and rate of ice elevation change versus altitude in the Western Chugach Mountains.

Change history

  • 22 January 2010

    In the version of this Letter initially published online, the contribution to sea-level rise should have read 0.12±0.02 mm yr−1. This error has been corrected in all versions of the text.


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We thank C. Larsen, R. Muskett, A. Arendt, S. Zirnheld and M. Wilkie for information concerning the USGS and Yukon maps. We also thank A. Cazenave for comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. Spot5 DEMs are courtesy of the SPIRIT project, ASTER DEMs of the GLIMS project. Laser-altimetry profiles were provided by the University of Alaska Fairbanks through the National Snow and Ice Data Center. E.B. acknowledges support from the CNES (TOSCA, ISIS); G.K.C.C. and B.M. support from the Polar Climate Stability Network and the Western Canadian Cryospheric Network, both funded by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, and from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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E.B. led the development of this study. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

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Correspondence to E. Berthier.

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Berthier, E., Schiefer, E., Clarke, G. et al. Contribution of Alaskan glaciers to sea-level rise derived from satellite imagery. Nature Geosci 3, 92–95 (2010).

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