Attribution of global glacier mass loss to anthropogenic and natural causes

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Science  22 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6199, pp. 919-921
DOI: 10.1126/science.1254702

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Putting the heat on Mother Nature

Humans are now the biggest cause of glacier melting. Until recently, that was not true. Glaciers take a long time—decades to centuries—to respond to the environmental changes that control their sizes. They have been retreating gradually from the peak levels they reached in the middle of the 19th century, at the end of a 500-year-long cold period called the Little Ice Age. Marzeion et al. show that that has recently changed though, as climate warming has continued: Over the past 20 or so years, the anthropogenic contribution to glacial mass loss has increased markedly (see the Perspective by Marshall).

Science, this issue p. 919; see also p. 872


The ongoing global glacier retreat is affecting human societies by causing sea-level rise, changing seasonal water availability, and increasing geohazards. Melting glaciers are an icon of anthropogenic climate change. However, glacier response times are typically decades or longer, which implies that the present-day glacier retreat is a mixed response to past and current natural climate variability and current anthropogenic forcing. Here we show that only 25 ± 35% of the global glacier mass loss during the period from 1851 to 2010 is attributable to anthropogenic causes. Nevertheless, the anthropogenic signal is detectable with high confidence in glacier mass balance observations during 1991 to 2010, and the anthropogenic fraction of global glacier mass loss during that period has increased to 69 ± 24%.

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