Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Drivers of modern New Zealand glacier change

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posted on 2021-12-08, 02:58 authored by Lauren VargoLauren Vargo

Glaciers across the Southern Alps of New Zealand have been photographed annually since 1977, creating a rare record of Southern Hemisphere glacier change. Here, we revisit these historic photographs and use structure from motion photogrammetry to quantitatively measure glacier change from the images. To establish this new method, it is initially applied to Brewster Glacier (1670 – 2400 m a.s.l.), one of the 50 monitored glaciers. We derive annual equilibrium line altitude (ELA) and length records from 1981 – 2017, and quantify the uncertainties associated with the method. Our length reconstruction shows largely continuous terminus retreat of 365 ± 12 m for Brewster Glacier since 1981. The ELA record, which compares well with glaciological mass-balance data measured between 2005 and 2015, shows pronounced interannual variability. Mean ELAs range from 1707 ± 6 m a.s.l. to 2303 ± 5 m a.s.l. The newly developed ELA chronology from Brewster shows several years since 1981 with especially high mass loss, all of which occurred in the past decade. Investigation using reanalysis data shows that these extreme mass-loss years occur when surface air temperatures, sea surface temperatures, and mean sea level pressure are anomalously high. In particular, the three highest mass-loss years on record, 2011, 2016, and 2018, each had a 2-month mean surface air temperature anomaly of at least +1.7°C between November and March, which is exclusive to these three years over the time investigated (April 1980 – March 2018). Using event attribution — a methodology using climate model simulations with and without human-induced forcings to calculate the anthropogenic influence on extreme events — we calculate the anthropogenic influence on these surface air temperature anomalies. The positive temperature anomalies during extreme mass-loss years have probabilities of 0 – 90% confidence) more likely to occur with anthropogenic forcing, and in once case in 2018 could not have occurred (>90% confidence) without anthropogenic forcing. This increased likelihood is driven by present-day temperatures ~1.0°C above the pre-industrial average, confirming a connection between rising anthropogenic greenhouse gases, warming temperatures, and high annual ice loss.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Horgan, Huw; Anderson, Brian; Mackintosh, Andrew