Constraining glacier elevation and mass changes in South America


Excluding the large ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, glaciers in South America are large contributors to sea-level rise1. Their rates of mass loss, however, are poorly known. Here, using repeat bi-static synthetic aperture radar interferometry over the years 2000 to 2011/2015, we compute continent-wide, glacier-specific elevation and mass changes for 85% of the glacierized area of South America. Mass loss rate is calculated to be 19.43 ± 0.60 Gt a−1 from elevation changes above ground, sea or lake level, with an additional 3.06 ± 1.24 Gt a−1 from subaqueous ice mass loss not contributing to sea-level rise. The largest contributions come from the Patagonian icefields, where 83% mass loss occurs, largely from dynamic adjustments of large glaciers. These changes contribute 0.054 ± 0.002 mm a−1 to sea-level rise. In comparison with previous studies2, tropical and out-tropical glaciers — as well as those in Tierra del Fuego — show considerably less ice loss. These results provide basic information to calibrate and validate glacier-climate models and also for decision-makers in water resource management3.

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Fig. 1: Glacierized areas, TanDEM-X coverage and elevation change rates in different regions of South America.
Fig. 2: Glacier hypsometry and elevation change distribution versus altitude per region.
Fig. 3: Decadal trends of skin temperature and vertically integrated water vapour across South America.
Fig. 4: Glacier mass balance rates per area unit (specific mass balance) and absolute mass changes for the different regions.

Data availability

Elevation change fields are available via the World Data Center PANGAEA operated by AWI Bremerhaven under Glacier-specific results can be generated from those fields, but will also be made available through submission to the World Glacier Monitoring Service.


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This study was financially supported with the grant BR2105/14-1 within the DFG Priority Program 'Regional Sea Level Change and Society’ and by grant SA2339/3-1, the BMBF-CONICYT project GABY-VASA (01DN15020, BMBF20140052), the DLR/BMWi grant GEKKO (50EE1544) as well as the HGF Alliance Remote Sensing & Earth System Dynamics and FONDECYT 1161130. D.F.B. was funded under a BECAS-Chile scholarship.

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M.H.B. initiated and led the study and wrote the manuscript, P.M., T.C.S. and C.S. wrote the analysis code; P.M. processed all data from the SPI, T.C.S. processed all data from Peru and Bolivia, C.S. processed the inner tropics, northern Chile and Patagonia outside SPI and NPI, computed the subaqueous mass loss and generated the graphs, D.F.B. processed the data for the central Andes, Lake District and NPI and compiled the supplemental data on glacier elevation and mass changes. T.S. provided the climate data analysis and interpretation of results; A.S., G.C. and P.S. contributed to the interpretation of the data. All authors revised the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Matthias H. Braun.

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Supplementary Figures 1–9, Supplementary Tables 1–3, Supplementary References

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Braun, M.H., Malz, P., Sommer, C. et al. Constraining glacier elevation and mass changes in South America. Nature Clim Change 9, 130–136 (2019).

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