Climatic controls on mountain glacier basal thermal regimes dictate spatial patterns of glacial erosion

Jingtao Lai, Alison M. Anders

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Climate has been viewed as a primary control on the rates and patterns of glacial erosion, yet our understanding of the mechanisms by which climate influences glacial erosion is limited. We hypothesize that climate controls the patterns of glacial erosion by altering the basal thermal regime of glaciers. The basal thermal regime is a first-order control on the spatial patterns of glacial erosion. Polythermal glaciers contain both cold-based portions that protect bedrock from erosion and warm-based portions that actively erode bedrock. In this study, we model the impact of various climatic conditions on glacier basal thermal regimes and patterns of glacial erosion in mountainous regions. We couple a sliding-dependent glacial erosion model with the Parallel Ice Sheet Model (PISM) to simulate the evolution of the glacier basal thermal regime and glacial erosion in a synthetic landscape. We find that both basal thermal regimes and glacial erosion patterns are sensitive to climatic conditions, and glacial erosion patterns follow the patterns of the basal thermal regime. Cold temperature leads to limited glacial erosion at high elevations due to cold-based conditions. Increasing precipitation can overcome the impact of cold temperature on the basal thermal regime by accumulating thick ice and lowering the melting point of ice at the base of glaciers. High precipitation rates, therefore, tend to cause warm-based conditions at high elevations, resulting in intensive erosion near the peak of the mountain range. Previous studies often assessed the impact of climate on the spatial patterns of glacial erosion by integrating climatic conditions into the equilibrium line altitudes (ELAs) of glaciers, and glacial erosion is suggested to be maximal around the ELA. However, our results show that different climatic conditions produce glaciers with similar ELAs but different patterns of basal thermal regime and glacial erosion, suggesting that there might not be any direct correlation between ELAs and glacial erosion patterns.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)845-859
Number of pages15
JournalEarth Surface Dynamics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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