|abstract ||The current world-wide glacier retreat is a clear sign of global warming. In addition, glaciers contribute to sea-level rise as a consequence of the current retreat. In this thesis we use records of past glacier fluctuations to reconstruct past climate variations and the glacier contribution to sea-level change.
Firstly, a coherent data set of world-wide glacier fluctuations over the past centuries is compiled. Most available information of glacier fluctuations concerns glacier length fluctuations. There is currently a large number of sources available, varying from field observations, satellite images and aerial photography to reconstructions from historical documents and geological evidence. The data set, resulting from the compilation of available data, contains 374 length records of glaciers from all continents and is described in Chapter 2.
In Chapter 3, a climatic interpretation of the length fluctuations of Glaciar Frías is presented. This glacier in North Patagonia has the longest detailed length record in southern South America. The glacier behaviour is modelled with a simplified mass balance model that is coupled with a flow line model. A warming of North Patagonian climate with 1.16 °Csince the mid 17th century, or a decrease in precipitation of 34%, would best explain the observed retreat since 1639. Driving the glacier model with existing climate reconstructions shows that the uncertainties in these reconstructions are rather large. In addition, it appears that the length fluctuations are mainly driven by variations in temperature rather than variations in precipitation.
The development of such detailed models is not feasible for all glaciers in the length fluctuations data set. In the next chapter a simplified approach is used to reconstruct global and hemispheric temperature for the period 1600–2000 from world-wide glacier length fluctuations. The reconstructions show that global temperature was more or less constant from 1600 until the middle of the 19th century. Since then, temperature rises until 2000, with a period of slight cooling from 1940 to 1970. Glacier-based reconstructions are completely independent from both other proxy-based reconstructions and from the instrumental record. Still, the reconstructed temperature agrees well with the instrumental record of the 20th century and it is in broad agreement with existing temperature reconstructions. However, according to the glacier length reconstruction the global warming starts in the middle of the 19th century instead of in the beginning of the 20th century, as indicated by several other reconstructions.
The data set of glacier length changes can also be used to estimate the glacier contribution to sea-level change. In Chapter 5, a global glacier length signal is calculated from the available glacier length records. The global length signal is scaled to global volume change, which is calibrated on mass balance and geodetic observations of the period 1950–2005. The reconstructed glacier contribution is 8.4 ± 2.1 cm for the period 1800–2005 and 9.1 ± 2.3 cm for the period 1850–2005. These estimates are significantly higher than earlier estimates. Glacier retreat accounts for half the observed sea-level rise since the middle of the 19th century.|