Hypsometric control on glacier mass balance sensitivity in Alaska

Wednesday, 16 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Daniel McGrath1, Louis Sass1, Anthony A Arendt2, Shad O'Neel1, Christian Kienholz3, Chris Larsen4 and Evan W Burgess5, (1)USGS Alaska Science Center, Anchorage, AK, United States, (2)Applied Physics Laboratory University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States, (3)University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States, (4)Geophysical Institute, Fairbanks, AK, United States, (5)University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, United States
Mass loss from glaciers in Alaska is dominated by strongly negative surface balances, particularly on small, continental glaciers but can be highly variable from glacier to glacier. Glacier hypsometry can exert significant control on mass balance sensitivity, particularly if the equilibrium line altitude (ELA) is in a broad area of low surface slope. In this study, we explore the spatial variability in glacier response to future climate forcings on the basis of hypsometry. We first derive mass balance sensitivities (30–70 m ELA / 1° C and 40–90 m ELA / 50% decrease in snow accumulation) from the ~50-year USGS Benchmark glaciers mass balance record. We subsequently assess mean climate fields in 2090–2100 derived from the IPCC AR5/CMIP5 RCP 6.0 5-model mean. Over glaciers in Alaska, we find 2–4° C warming and 10–20% increase in precipitation relative to 2006–2015, but a corresponding 0–50% decrease in snow accumulation due to rising temperatures. We assess changes in accumulation area ratios (AAR) to a rising ELA using binned individual glacier hypsometries. For an ELA increase of 150 m, the mean statewide AAR drops by 0.45, representing a 70% reduction in accumulation area on an individual glacier basis. Small, interior glaciers are the primary drivers of this reduction and for nearly 25% of all glaciers, the new ELA exceeds the glacier’s maximum elevation, portending eventual loss. The loss of small glaciers, particularly in the drier interior of Alaska will significantly modify streamflow properties (flashy hydrographs, earlier and reduced peak flows, increased interannual variability, warmer temperatures) with poorly understood downstream ecosystem and oceanographic impacts.