Recent, very rapid retreat of a temperate glacier in SE Iceland



Bradwell T, Sigurdsson O & Everest JD (2013) Recent, very rapid retreat of a temperate glacier in SE Iceland. Boreas, 42 (4), pp. 959-973.

Iceland's glaciers are particularly sensitive to climate change, and their margins respond to trends in air temperature. Most Icelandic glaciers have been in retreat sincec. 1990, and almost all since 1995. Using ice-front measurements, photographic and geomorphological evidence, we examined the record of ice-front fluctuations of Virkisjökull–Falljökull, a steep high-mass-turnover outlet glacier in maritime SE Iceland, in order to place recent changes in a longer-term (80-year) context. Detailed geomorphological mapping identifies two suites of annual push moraines: one suite formed betweenc. 1935 and 1945, supported by lichenometric dating; the other between 1990 and 2004. Using moraine spacing as a proxy for ice-front retreat rates, we show that average retreat rates during the 1930s and 1940s (28 m a−1) were twice as high as during the period from 1990 to 2004 (14 m a−1). Furthermore, we show that both suites of annual moraines are associated with above-average summer temperatures. Since 2005, however, retreat rates have increased considerably – averaging 35 m a−1– with the last 5 years representing the greatest amount of ice-front retreat (∼190 m) in any 5-year period since measurements began in 1932. We propose that this recent, rapid, ice-front retreat and thinning in a decade of unusually warm summers has resulted in a glaciological threshold being breached, with subsequent large-scale stagnation of the glacier terminus (i.e. no forward movement) and the cessation of annual push-moraine formation. Breaching this threshold has, we suggest, caused further very rapid non-uniform retreat and downwasting since 2005 via a system feedback between surface melting, glacier thinning, decreased driving stress and decreased forward motion.

Boreas: Volume 42, Issue 4

Publication date31/10/2013
Publication date online21/03/2013
Date accepted by journal13/01/2013

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Dr Tom Bradwell

Dr Tom Bradwell

Senior Lecturer, Biological and Environmental Sciences