Recent, very rapid retreat of a temperate glacier in SE Iceland
Article first published online: 21 MAR 2013
© 2013 British Geological Survey, NERC. Boreas published by John Wiley and Sons Ltd., on behalf of The Boreas Collegium.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Volume 42, Issue 4, pages 959–973, October 2013
How to Cite
Bradwell, T., Sigurđsson, O. and Everest, J. (2013), Recent, very rapid retreat of a temperate glacier in SE Iceland. Boreas, 42: 959–973. doi: 10.1111/bor.12014
- Issue published online: 24 SEP 2013
- Article first published online: 21 MAR 2013
- Manuscript Accepted: 13 JAN 2013
- Manuscript Received: 20 JUL 2012
- BGS-NERC Iceland Glacier Observatory project
Iceland's glaciers are particularly sensitive to climate change, and their margins respond to trends in air temperature. Most Icelandic glaciers have been in retreat since c. 1990, and almost all since 1995. Using ice-front measurements, photographic and geomorphological evidence, we examined the record of ice-front fluctuations of Virkisjökull–Falljökull, a steep high-mass-turnover outlet glacier in maritime SE Iceland, in order to place recent changes in a longer-term (80-year) context. Detailed geomorphological mapping identifies two suites of annual push moraines: one suite formed between c. 1935 and 1945, supported by lichenometric dating; the other between 1990 and 2004. Using moraine spacing as a proxy for ice-front retreat rates, we show that average retreat rates during the 1930s and 1940s (28 m a−1) were twice as high as during the period from 1990 to 2004 (14 m a−1). Furthermore, we show that both suites of annual moraines are associated with above-average summer temperatures. Since 2005, however, retreat rates have increased considerably – averaging 35 m a−1 – with the last 5 years representing the greatest amount of ice-front retreat (∼190 m) in any 5-year period since measurements began in 1932. We propose that this recent, rapid, ice-front retreat and thinning in a decade of unusually warm summers has resulted in a glaciological threshold being breached, with subsequent large-scale stagnation of the glacier terminus (i.e. no forward movement) and the cessation of annual push-moraine formation. Breaching this threshold has, we suggest, caused further very rapid non-uniform retreat and downwasting since 2005 via a system feedback between surface melting, glacier thinning, decreased driving stress and decreased forward motion.