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Historical glacier change on Svalbard predicts doubling of mass loss by 2100

Geyman, Emily C. and van Pelt, J. J. Ward and Maloof, Adam C. and Aas, Harald Faste and Kohler, Jack (2022) Historical glacier change on Svalbard predicts doubling of mass loss by 2100. Nature, 601 (7893). pp. 374-379. ISSN 0028-0836. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-04314-4.

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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 1: Svalbard’s estimated contribution to sea level rise: past and future) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 2: Past and future estimates of temperature and precipitation across Svalbard) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 3: An overview of the 1936/1938 aerial survey7 and the new datasets available from this study) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 4: An overview of the image pre-processing and structure from motion (SfM) pipelines) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 5: Example 3D comparisons of Svalbard glaciers in 1936 and 2008-2011) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 6: Data coverage and void-filling with Gaussian process (GP) regression) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 7: Climatic and geometric controls on glacier mass balance) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 8: Visual and quantitative comparison of the regional Ts vs. ∆h/∆t behavior of Svalbard glaciers) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 9: Glacier sensitivity to warming and 21st century predictions based on positive degree day (PDD) estimates) - Supplemental Material
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[img] Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Fig. 10: Temperature control on glacier mass balance in the satellite era4 (2000-2019)) - Supplemental Material
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Image (JPEG) (Extended Data Table 1: Svalbard glacier changes, 1936-2010) - Supplemental Material
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The melting of glaciers and ice caps accounts for about one-third of current sea-level rise , exceeding the mass loss from the more voluminous Greenland or Antarctic Ice Sheets. The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, which hosts spatial climate gradients that are larger than the expected temporal climate shifts over the next century, is a natural laboratory to constrain the climate sensitivity of glaciers and predict their response to future warming. Here we link historical and modern glacier observations to predict that twenty-first century glacier thinning rates will more than double those from 1936 to 2010. Making use of an archive of historical aerial imagery7 from 1936 and 1938, we use structure-from-motion photogrammetry to reconstruct the three-dimensional geometry of 1,594 glaciers across Svalbard. We compare these reconstructions to modern ice elevation data to derive the spatial pattern of mass balance over a more than 70-year timespan, enabling us to see through the noise of annual and decadal variability to quantify how variables such as temperature and precipitation control ice loss. We find a robust temperature dependence of melt rates, whereby a 1 °C rise in mean summer temperature corresponds to a decrease in area-normalized mass balance of −0.28 m yr−1 of water equivalent. Finally, we design a space-for-time substitution8 to combine our historical glacier observations with climate projections and make first-order predictions of twenty-first century glacier change across Svalbard.

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription ReadCube access ItemData ItemData ItemOriginal 1936/1938 aerial images and locations Item5 m regional DEMs Item50 cm orthophotomosaic ItemCode dataset of 1936/1938 3D glacier reconstructions
van Pelt, J. J. Ward0000-0003-4839-7900
Maloof, Adam C.0000-0003-0032-6628
Additional Information:© 2022 Nature Publishing Group. Received 17 June 2021; Accepted 07 December 2021; Published 19 January 2022. We thank F. Simons, C.-Y. Lai, P. Wennberg, P. Moore, B. Dyer, G. Moholdt, R.A. Morris, E. Isaksson, A. Schomacker, C. Nuth, E. Schytt Holmlund and B. Geyman for conversations that improved the manuscript. W.J.J.v.P. acknowledges funding from the Swedish National Space Agency (project 189/18). E.C.G. was supported by a Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Global Scholarship at Princeton University, a Svalbard Science Forum Arctic Field Grant, and the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. Data availability: The 1936/1938 Svalbard glacier inventory presented here consists of raster DEMs and orthophotos (5 m resolution), and vector outlines of glacier extents (Extended Data Fig. 3). All data are publicly available on the NPI website ( and on Zenodo ( In these repositories, we also provide the raw (unprocessed) 3D point clouds as .laz files and a spreadsheet (.xlsx file) containing glacier-by-glacier estimates of area, volume, hypsometry, ∆h/∆t, bed slope, DEM uncertainty and climate fields (mean annual temperature, mean summer temperature, PDDs, precipitation as snow and total precipitation). The original 1936/1938 aerial images and their locations can be viewed at The 5 m regional DEMs from the 2008–2012 survey33 are available as .tif files from and the associated 50 cm orthophotomosaic is available as a WMTS layer from Code availability: The code developed to analyse the 1936–2010 mass balance data and implement the space-for-time substitution is available on Zenodo ( Author Contributions: E.C.G. and J.K. designed the study. E.C.G. performed the SfM reconstructions and the analysis of the data. W.J.J.v.P. assembled and downscaled the regional climate model results. A.C.M. contributed to the formulation of the space-for-time substitution. H.F.A. oversaw the digitization of the 1936/1938 image archive. E.C.G. wrote the manuscript, with edits from all authors. The authors declare no competing interests. Peer review information: Nature thanks Jaime Otero and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Swedish National Space Agency189/18
Princeton UniversityUNSPECIFIED
Svalbard Science ForumUNSPECIFIED
Fannie and John Hertz FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Subject Keywords:Cryospheric science; Projection and prediction
Issue or Number:7893
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20220119-680483700
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Geyman, E.C., J. J. van Pelt, W., Maloof, A.C. et al. Historical glacier change on Svalbard predicts doubling of mass loss by 2100. Nature 601, 374–379 (2022).
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:112998
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:19 Jan 2022 20:46
Last Modified:19 Jan 2022 20:46

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