Low elevation of Svalbard glaciers drives high mass loss variability

Brice Noël*, C. L. Jakobs, W. J.J. van Pelt, S. Lhermitte, B. Wouters, J. Kohler, J. O. Hagen, B. Luks, C. H. Reijmer, W. J. van de Berg, M. R. van den Broeke

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)
25 Downloads (Pure)


Compared to other Arctic ice masses, Svalbard glaciers are low-elevated with flat interior accumulation areas, resulting in a marked peak in their current hypsometry (area-elevation distribution) at ~450 m above sea level. Since summer melt consistently exceeds winter snowfall, these low-lying glaciers can only survive by refreezing a considerable fraction of surface melt and rain in the porous firn layer covering their accumulation zones. We use a high-resolution climate model to show that modest atmospheric warming in the mid-1980s forced the firn zone to retreat upward by ~100 m to coincide with the hypsometry peak. This led to a rapid areal reduction of firn cover available for refreezing, and strongly increased runoff from dark, bare ice areas, amplifying mass loss from all elevations. As the firn line fluctuates around the hypsometry peak in the current climate, Svalbard glaciers will continue to lose mass and show high sensitivity to temperature perturbations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4597
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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