The contrasting response of outlet glaciers to interior and ocean forcing

John Erich Christian, Alexander A. Robel, Cristian Proistosescu, Gerard Roe, Michelle Koutnik, Knut Christianson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The dynamics of marine-terminating outlet glaciers are of fundamental interest in glaciology and affect mass loss from ice sheets in a warming climate. In this study, we analyze the response of outlet glaciers to different sources of climate forcing. We find that outlet glaciers have a characteristically different transient response to surface-mass-balance forcing applied over the interior than to oceanic forcing applied at the grounding line. A recently developed reduced model represents outlet-glacier dynamics via two widely separated response timescales: a fast response associated with grounding-zone dynamics and a slow response of interior ice. The reduced model is shown to emulate the behavior of a more complex numerical model of ice flow. Together, these models demonstrate that ocean forcing first engages the fast, local response and then the slow adjustment of interior ice, whereas surface-mass-balance forcing is dominated by the slow interior adjustment. We also demonstrate the importance of the timescales of stochastic forcing for assessing the natural variability in outlet glaciers, highlighting that decadal persistence in ocean variability can affect the behavior of outlet glaciers on centennial and longer timescales. Finally, we show that these transient responses have important implications for attributing observed glacier changes to natural or anthropogenic influences; the future change already committed by past forcing; and the impact of past climate changes on the preindustrial glacier state, against which current and future anthropogenic influences are assessed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2515-2535
Number of pages21
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 31 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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