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Tropical glaciers, recorders and indicators of climate change, are disappearing globally

  • Lonnie G. Thompson (a1) (a2), Ellen Mosley-Thompson (a1) (a3), Mary E. Davis (a1) and Henry H. Brecher (a1)


In this paper we review the interaction of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) variability and warming trends recorded in ice-core records from high-altitude tropical glaciers, discuss the implications of the warming trends for the glaciers and consider the societal implications of glacier retreat. ENSO has strong impacts on meteorological phenomena that directly or indirectly affect most regions on the planet and their populations. Many tropical ice fields have provided continuous annually resolved proxy records of climatic and environmental variability preserved in measurable parameters, especially oxygen and hydrogen isotopic ratios (δ18O, δD) and the net mass balance (accumulation). These records present an opportunity to examine the nature of tropical climate variability in greater detail and to extract new information on linkages between rising temperatures on tropical glaciers and equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures in critical ENSO indicator regions. The long-term climate records from a collection of high-altitude tropical ice cores provide the longer-term context essential for assessing the significance of the magnitude and rate of current climate changes that are in large measure driving glacier retreat. The well-documented ice loss on Quelccaya in the Peruvian Andes, Naimona’nyi in the Himalaya, Kilimanjaro in eastern Africa and the ice fields near Puncak Jaya in Papua, Indonesia, presents a grim future for low-latitude glaciers. The ongoing melting of these ice fields (response) is consistent with model predictions for a vertical amplification of temperature in the tropics (driver) and has serious implications for the people who live in these areas.

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