A parameterization scheme using simple algorithms for unmeasured glaciers is being applied to glacier inventory data to estimate the basic glaciological characteristics of the inventoried ice bodies and simulate potential climate-change effects on mountain glaciers. For past and potential climate scenarios, glacier changes for assumed mass-balance changes are calculated as step functions between steady-state conditions for time intervals that approximately correspond to the characteristic dynamic response time (a few decades) of the glaciers. In order to test the procedure, a pilot study was carried out in the European Alps where detailed glacier inventories had been compiled around the mid-1970s. Total glacier volume in the Alps is estimated at about 130 km3 for the mid-1970s; strongly negative mass balances are likely to have caused a loss of about 10–20% of this total volume during the decade 1980–90. Backward calculation of glacier-length changes using a mean annual mass balance of 0.25m w.e.a−1 since the end of the “Little Ice Age” around 1850 AD gives considerable scatter but satisfactory overall results as compared with long-term observations. The total loss of Alpine surface ice mass since 1850 can be estimated at about half the original value. An acceleration of this development, with annual mass losses of around 1 m a−1 or more as anticipated from IPCC scenario A for the coming century, could eliminate major parts of the presently existing Alpine ice volume within decades.
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