Twenty-first century glacier slowdown driven by mass loss in High Mountain Asia

Abstract

Glaciers in High Mountain Asia have experienced heterogeneous rates of loss since the 1970s. Yet, the associated changes in ice flow that lead to mass redistribution and modify the glacier sensitivity to climate are poorly constrained. Here we present observations of changes in ice flow for all glaciers in High Mountain Asia over the period 2000–2017, based on one million pairs of optical satellite images. Trend analysis reveals that in 9 of the 11 surveyed regions, glaciers show sustained slowdown concomitant with ice thinning. In contrast, the stable or thickening glaciers of the Karakoram and West Kunlun regions experience slightly accelerated glacier flow. Up to 94% of the variability in velocity change between regions can be explained by changes in gravitational driving stress, which in turn is largely controlled by changes in ice thickness. We conclude that, despite the complexities of individual glacier behaviour, decadal and regional changes in ice flow are largely insensitive to changes in conditions at the bed of the glacier and can be well estimated from ice thickness change and slope alone.

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Fig. 1: Annual glacier velocity anomalies for High Mountain Asia (2000–2017).
Fig. 2: Glacier velocity and thickness trends for High Mountain Asia (2000–2016).
Fig. 3: Observed velocity change versus mass balance and driving stress change for 11 subregions of HMA.

Data availability

The mean and annual velocity fields will be made publicly available in early 2019 as part of the NASA MEaSUREs - ITS_LIVE project and will be distributed though the National Snow and Ice Data centre. Data can be made available immediately through request to the authors.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Huss for providing the thickness and centre flow line data, J. Gardelle, T. Bolch, M. Rankl and H. Sevestre for providing data from their surge-inventory as well as glacier and basin outlines. We thank A. Rowan for comments and suggestions that greatly improved the quality of the paper. Initial research was conducted during A.D.’s graduate programme, with a doctoral fellowship from the Centre National d’Etude Spatial (CNES) and from the Savoie region. N.G. and A.D. were supported by funding from the European Space Agency Dragon 3 programme. E.B. acknowledges support from the French Space Agency (CNES). A.S.G. and A.D. were supported by funding from the NASA Cryosphere and MEaSUREs Programs and research was conducted at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Contributions

A.D., N.G. and A.S.G. designed the study. A.S.G. generated the velocity fields. A.D. conducted the analysis with A.S.G and N.G. providing input. A.D. developed the model with D.G. and P.W.N. providing input. F.B. provided the elevation change data. All authors interpreted the results. A.D. led the writing of the paper and all co-authors contributed to it.

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Correspondence to Amaury Dehecq.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Materials

Supplementary Discussion and Supplementary Figures.

Supplementary Data Set

List of surging glaciers.

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Dehecq, A., Gourmelen, N., Gardner, A.S. et al. Twenty-first century glacier slowdown driven by mass loss in High Mountain Asia. Nature Geosci 12, 22–27 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0271-9

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