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Theses Doctoral

Mountain Glacier Change Across Regions and Timescales

Maurer, Joshua

Mountain glaciers have influenced the surface of our planet throughout geologic time. These large reservoirs of water ice sculpt alpine landscapes, regulate downstream river flows, perturb climate-tectonic feedbacks, contribute to sea level change, and guide human migration and settlement patterns. Glaciers are especially relevant in modern times, acting as buffers which supply seasonal meltwater to densely populated downstream communities and support economies via hydropower generation. Anthropogenic warming is accelerating ice loss in most glacierized regions of the world. This has sparked concerns regarding water resources and natural hazards, and placed glaciers at the forefront of climate research. Here we provide new observations of glacier change in key mountain regions to quantify rates of ice loss, better understand climate drivers, and help establish a more unified framework for studying glacier change across timescales.

In Chapter 1 we use seismic observations, numerical modeling, and geomorphic analysis to investigate a destructive glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) which occurred in Bhutan. GLOFs are a substantial hazard for downstream communities in many vulnerable regions. Yet key aspects of GLOF dynamics remain difficult to quantify, as in situ measurements are scarce due to the unpredictability and remote source locations of these events. Here we apply cross-correlation based seismic analyses to track the evolution of the GLOF remotely (~100 km from the source region), use the seismic observations along with eyewitness reports and a downstream gauge station to constrain a numerical flood model, then assess geomorphic change and current state of the unstable lakes via satellite imagery. Coherent seismic energy is evident from 1 to 5 Hz beginning approximately 5 hours before the flood impacted Punakha village, which originated at the source lake and advanced down the valley during the GLOF duration. Our analysis highlights potential benefits of using real-time seismic monitoring to improve early warning systems.

The next two chapters in this work focus on quantifying multi-decadal glacier ice loss in the Himalayas. Himalayan glaciers supply meltwater to densely populated catchments in South Asia, and regional observations of glacier change are needed to understand climate drivers and assess impacts on glacier-fed rivers. Here we utilize a set of digital elevation models derived from cold war–era spy satellite film and modern stereo satellite imagery to evaluate glacier responses to changing climate over the last four decades. In Chapter 2 we focus on the eastern Himalayas, centered on the Bhutan–China border. The wide range of glacier types allows for the first mass balance comparison between clean, debris, and lake-terminating (calving) glaciers in the area. Measured glaciers show significant ice loss, with statistically similar mass balance values for both clean-ice and debris-covered glacier groups. Chapter 3 extends the same methodology to quantify glacier change across the entire Himalayan range during 1975–2000 and 2000–2016. We observe consistent ice loss along the entire 2000-km transect for both intervals and find a doubling of the average loss rate during 2000–2016 compared to 1975–2000. The similar magnitude and acceleration of ice loss across the Himalayas suggests a regionally coherent climate forcing, consistent with atmospheric warming and associated energy fluxes as the dominant drivers of glacier change.

Chapter 4 investigates millennial-scale glacier changes during the Late Glacial period (15-11 ka). Here we present a high-precision beryllium-10 chronology and geomorphic map from a sequence of well-preserved moraines in the Nendaz valley of the western European Alps, with the goal to shed light on the timing and magnitude of glacier responses during an interval of dramatic natural climate variability. Our chronology brackets a coherent glacier recession through the Younger Dryas stadial into the early Holocene, similar to glacier records from the southern hemisphere and a new chronology from Arctic Norway. These results highlight a general agreement between mountain glacier changes and atmospheric greenhouse gas records during the Late Glacial.

In Chapter 5 we use a numerical glacier model to simulate glacier change across a typical alpine region in the European Alps. Model results suggest that shorter observational timespans focused on modern periods (when glaciers are far from equilibrium and undergoing rapid change) exhibit greater spatial variability of mean annual ice thickness changes, compared to intervals which extend further back in time (to include decades when climate was more stable). The model agrees with multi-decadal satellite observations of glacier change, and clarifies the positive correlation between glacier disequilibrium and spatial variability of glacier mass balance. This relationship should be taken into account in regional glacier studies, particularly when analyzing recent spatial patterns of ice loss.

Advances made in this work are of practical value for societies vulnerable to glacier change. This includes potential improvements to GLOF early warning systems via seismic monitoring, better constraints on glacier-sourced water scenarios in South Asia, strengthened understanding of long-term glacier responses to baseline natural climate variability, and a clarified relationship between glacier disequilibrium and spatial variability of ice loss. When placed within a global context, our observations highlight the correlation between regional mountain glacier change and greenhouse gas forcing through time.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Schaefer, Joerg M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 6, 2020