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Retreating Glacier Fronts on the Antarctic Peninsula over the Past Half-Century

Filed under: — group @ 22 April 2005 - (Français)

Guest commentary by David Vaughan

The recent retreat of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula has been widely attributed to warming atmospheric temperatures. There is, however, little published work describing the response of glacier margin positions to this regional climate change. In the paper Retreating Glacier Fronts on the Antarctic Peninsula over the Past Half-Century published this week in Science, we presented new data describing trends in 244 marine glacier fronts on the Antarctic Peninsula over the last 50 years. The data come from matching archives of over 2000 aerial photographs of the Antarctic Peninsula to satellite images, and represent about three years of work by Alison Cook. The work was carried out at British Antarctic Survey, but was funded by the US Geological Survey, as part of a larger programme to map change in the coastline of all Antarctica.

Analysis of the data reveals that 87% of glaciers have retreated (click on the image for a more detailed figure) and that the change from advance to retreat has occurred progressively with latitude. In 1950s only the most northerly glaciers appeared to be retreating, but a transition from advance to retreat appeared to move down the Antarctic Peninsula over a period of about 10 to 20 years, broadly in line with what we would expect if this was a consequence of the warming that has been measured in this area. However, there are features of the pattern of change that we find difficult to explain by atmospheric warming alone. In particular, there was a period in the late-1980s and early-1990s when retreat slowed down along most of the coast, and we don’t see any cause for this in the temperature records – so there may be some other factors at work, perhaps ocean temperature.

The retreat of these glaciers in itself will have a negligible effect on sea level, since most of the ice that has retreated was in the water already. However, if as a consequence of shortening, the glaciers are also flowing faster, then we would be seeing another (small) contribution to sea level rise. This is the next line of work and we will report in the near future.

Reference: Retreating Glacier Fronts on the Antarctic Peninsula over the Past Half-Century A. J. Cook, A. J. Fox, D. G. Vaughan, J. G. Ferrigno, Science, Vol 308, Issue 5721, 541-544 , 22 April 2005 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1104235]

See also the earlier RealClimate post on Antarctic temperature change.

Note: This article (and “”) were discussed in a segment “Climate Change Update” on NPR’s “Science Friday” earlier this afternoon (audio link available here).

15 Responses to “Retreating Glacier Fronts on the Antarctic Peninsula over the Past Half-Century”

  1. 1
    Tom easley says:

    Given the one percent rise of temperature over the last century is an “average”, and the Arctic and Antarctic regions are now warming faster, purportedly by up to eleven degrees, there must be areas that are now cooler. Where are the areas of the earth that are cooler? Why are they cooler?

    [Response: I’m not quite sure where the 11 degrees comes from. The Peninsula is warming very fast, especially in winter, up to 1oC/decade – here. But that pic also shows the smaller (or -ve) trends elsewhere in Antarctica. Globally, look at and other pics from there. A strong positive in one region doesn’t need to be balanced by -ve’s elsewhere, just by weaker positives. And what causes some regions to show cooler? Natural variability: we expect (given a global warming trend) local/regional random variations year-to-year – William

    Presumably this commentor’s statement about 11 degrees comes from the media hype surrounding some climate model results, which we discussed earlier — here. He/she should also look at the earlier post on Antarctic temperature variability, here. — eric

  2. 2
    Stephen Berg says:

    “Where are the areas of the earth that are cooler? Why are they cooler?”

    I would guess that marine areas adjacent to higher glacial melt would be these “cooler” areas, due to waters in the area being newly melted from glaciers. This cool new meltwater would then take in some of the heat from the air above, leaving this air cooler and the water just slightly warmer than before. (This is sensible heat transfer, am I right? Heat transfer from a warm body to a cool body by conduction?)

  3. 3
    BlogBites says:

    Analysis of the data reveals that 87% of glaciers have retreated and that the change from advance to retreat has occurred progressively with latitude.

  4. 4
    dave says:

    Although I heard the audio from Science Friday, I am hampered in that I cannot access the article in Science is based on, so take this with a grain of salt.

    When Vaughn says that the West Antarctic glaciers are in retreat, does he mean that the fronting ice shelves are in retreat? or the glaciers themselves? If the former, then that would mean that the land-based glaciers would eventually no longer be buttressed by the ice shelves and their flow would empty right into the sea, increasing GSLR. This happens as the ocean undermines the land-sitting glaciers right at the waterline causing the glaciers to detach from the bedrock on which they are sitting. In addition, it is my understanding that much of the peninsula itself is actually below sea-level. Also, there is some evidence that what happens at the front of such glaciers can affect the “back” (inland) parts of the glaciers increasing glacial flow toward the ocean. This has been observed in the glaciers fronting the Amundsen Sea (Pine Island, etc.).

    As to causes, natural variability is not ruled out but Vaughn states that there is evidence that some of the disappearing ice (shelves) have been there for thousands of years – this would appear to undermine arguments for a short-term natural cycle. If the peninsula is heating up at 1C/decade (cited by William), I wonder when we can expect this glacial ablation to affect sea-level rise. More dramatic events like detachment of the Larsen B ice shelf seem to plausibly lie in the future.

  5. 5
    Tim says:

    I found an article via Google’s news service which referenced this study. If you could, I would like to hear some informed commentary on it. I noted that the author works for the CATO Institute, and thus I immediately came here to ask about it.

    Thank you.

    [Response:The TCS peice isn’t very good. Citing MC, as someone else pointed out, is a poor start. Claiming that Antarctic-as-a-whole temperatures have declined isn’t a great continuation either: see for a piccy from station data. The total picture is complex – see the prev RC post – but yes, the Peninsula is the place with by far the strongest trends, and they are for warming. The figure in the TCS piece, from Doran et al, is… not very good. But: it is fair to say that the vital disctinction – that the paper was about the Peninsula glaciers – was lost on some of the worlds press – W]

  6. 6
    Michael Jankowski says:


    The author at TCS is not contesting the paper published in Science. What he’s complaining about is a headline that took the study results and implied something greater (such as glaciers melting across the entire continent). And as he pointed-out, much of the rest of Antarctica hasn’t seen the warming that this penninsula has.

    He also complains that the authors/Science made no mention of the studies concerning the rest of Antarctica, and I see his point. Personally, I would’ve included (or required) wording as such in the background info and possibly the conclusions to put the results of the study in the proper context.

  7. 7
    Stephen Berg says:

    Authors Cook and Dr. Vaughan were on the CBC’s “Quirks and Quarks” radio show this past Saturday. Here is an excerpt of their segment:

    A description of the show can be found here:

  8. 8
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #5: To understand this issue, you need to read the prior RC article (the second linked reference at the end of this article) *and* all of its linked references. There is no substitute for a little homework, and in any case it’s unfair to the RC authors to ask them to simply repeat or restate information that’s already been provided.

    Re #6: I don’t believe Michaels is taken seriously in the scientific community. His favorable reference to “State of Fear” is a dead giveaway, as is his broad-brush scathing dismissal of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate disruption.

    In any case, why should the Science article’s references be limited to just the purported cooling in the main part of Antarctica? What about all the melting ice *everywhere else on the planet*?

  9. 9
    John Booth says:

    Very interesting piece. I look forward to reading it in Science. A couple of questions immediately came to mind that perhaps someone can answer.

    Is the determination of glacier recession based solely on interpolation of aerial and satelite images?

    If so, does the report detail how scaling, viewing angle, and sea level were accounted for?

  10. 10
    alex kahl says:

    Has anyone else been following Elizabeth Kolbert’s series in the New Yorker? Although she is a political correspondent, her work usually includes the interaction of science and politics. She was the New Yorker reviewer of Crichton’s book back in December. Anyways, I have found the first two parts of her series to be enjoyable even though I was highly skeptical at the outset (as I am with any mainstream presentation of the climate change science). The first two parts of her series seem to be the type of writing that we really need to bring the mounting evidence of anthropogenically induced climate change into the public arena… without contention. I am curious what other folks think about the series thus far. The first part is available here at the New Yorker magazine’s website. As a grduate student studying the export flux of biogenic particles from the ocean’s surface, I have been pleasantly surprised with the breadth of scientific evidence she has brought together. Plus, she seems to have given the appropriate credit where it is due by citing Manabe (among others) for early climate modelling and Broecker for his conceptualization of the conveyor belt (as two of many examples).

  11. 11
    Brad Westervelt says:

    “…In particular, there was a period in the late-1980s and early-1990s when retreat slowed down along most of the coast, and we don’t see any cause for this in the temperature records – so there may be some other factors at work, perhaps ocean temperature.”

    Perhaps the elsewhere discussed “global dimming” phenomena: airborne particulate from volcanoes, unusual storms or other factors during said period reducing the cumulative light energy worldwide.

    [Response: Global dimming is mostly associated with anthropogenic aerosols, and in the southern hemisphere these are in pretty short supply… -gavin]

  12. 12
    stephan harrison says:

    Response to Number 11: Could this slowing of glacier recession be related to changes in precipitation? In Patagonia we noticed a short readvance within a general recession phase of the outlet glaciers around the early 1990s. The glaciers were probably responding to a marked increase in precipitation in the region in the 1970s and 1980s and I think a similar situation has occurred in parts of New Zealand.

  13. 13
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    RE #5
    Michaels on the TCS website is referring to an AP article. The article is at:
    RealClimate has mentioned Patrick Michaels on the Jan 20 post Peer Review: A Necessary but not Sufficient Condition and TCS on the Feb 8 post Strange Bedfellows.

    Bringing up Michaels employment with Cato is important. Cato and TCS are political advocacy groups as are many of these think-tanks. They advance conservative and corporate political agendas. That is why conservative foundations and industry fund them. For examples see: and
    Being politically active for conservatives, industry, environmentalists or any other group is not a bad thing. Any political advocacy group has an agenda and when evaluating their messages about climate change science it is important to examine how they advance this agenda. Every political group uses spin to try to persuade the public, but Cato and TCS are some of the groups that use what can be called extreme tactics in the climate change science debate.

    Cato and TCS are hostile to environmental regulation. Current environmental regulations were passed after environmental groups ran political campaigns that reflected the public’s call for action addressing environmental problems. Conservatives and industry were stung by these political defeats. Noting the success of environmentalists, conservatives and industry founded their own political advocacy groups like Cato and TCS to oppose environmental regulation.

    Cato, TCS and other groups are waging a public relations campaign against environmental regulation. For example: (Michaels makes a dubious claim that environmental regulations will cause human suffering and even deaths)
    Because science, when objectively examined, often supports environmental regulation science and scientific institutions have also been subject to criticism. For example: (Michaels claims the Journal Nature is “deceptive”, “outlandish” and publishes “junk science” about climate change) (Michaels calls the AAAS a “lobbying organization”, claims the Journal Science “only accepts one side of the global warming story” and “they go a little overboard in their one-sided zeal”)
    The goal of Cato and other similar groups is to publicly cast doubt on the science so the public will not support climate change legislation. Without public support it is unlikely any climate change regulation will be enacted. Even conservative politicians who support climate change legislation have been targeted. For example: (Michaels criticizes Senator McCain’s proposed climate change regulations as a political ploy)

    The claims about climate change science on the Cato and TCS websites have questionable scientific value. Most of these claims are political attacks that promote a partisan agenda and are not objective information about climate change science.
    Michaels is openly in the political arena and his statements on the Cato and TCS websites show this. He is interested in political actions that are based on climate change science. Concern about policies based on science is understandable and can be used to create better policies, but in Michaels case it has affected his objectivity.

  14. 14
    Michael Jankowski says:


    Global context would certainly be welcomed in background and/or conclusion sections, but regional context is important, IMHO (and absolutely necessary if global references are included), especially on a topic like climate change.

    Michaels may get attacked a lot from the AGW crowd, but if that blinds people from looking objectively at the points of his commentary, then they have a serious prejudices to overcome.

    I don’t see Michaels’ reference to “State of Fear” as damning, and I’m assuming Crichton had thorough references to support it based on what I’ve heard of the book. If anything, it’s a stretch in that same statement for Michaels to say that “every scientist” knows that the average temp across Antarctica has been declining for decades. Michaels’ then summarizes a 2002 Nature article as supporting information (I guess for those TCS readers who either aren’t scientists or who haven’t read Crichton’s book).

    I think Michaels’ points are valid about (1) hysterical media headlines and (2) lack of regional context in the Science article. I don’t quite like the summary Michaels provides of the 2002 Nature article because it is a simple beginning-to-end trend. Way too often I’ve seen cherry-picked bookends, and even legitimate bookends can conceal important trends within. But maybe that’s all Michaels’ had to work with from the Nature article and/or TCS space limitations and not his fault.

    Just for the record, I’m not associated with Cato, TCS, or any other politically-related group.

  15. 15
    Hank Roberts says:

    Useful debunking here, from a pointer I found at the public health weblog

    The Real Junk Science
    George Monbiot, AlterNet
    Posted on May 14, 2005, Printed on May 16, 2005

    QUOTE (my excerpts)
    … For the past three weeks, a set of figures has been working a hole in my mind. On April 16, New Scientist published a letter from the famous botanist David Bellamy. Many of the world’s glaciers, he claimed, “are not shrinking but in fact are growing. … 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980.”

    His letter was instantly taken up by climate change deniers. And it began to worry me. What if Bellamy was right? ….

    for the same data can be found all over the internet. They were first published online by Professor Fred Singer …. They are constantly quoted as evidence …. Singer cites half a source: “a paper published in Science in 1989.” ….

    I went through every edition of Science published in 1989, both manually and electronically. Not only did it contain nothing resembling those figures; throughout that year there was no paper published in this journal about glacial advance or retreat…..

    END QUOTE, see original for full content