Glaciations in response to climate variations preconditioned by evolving topography

Nature. 2013 Jan 10;493(7431):206-10. doi: 10.1038/nature11786.


Landscapes modified by glacial erosion show a distinct distribution of surface area with elevation (hypsometry). In particular, the height of these regions is influenced by climatic gradients controlling the altitude where glacial and periglacial processes are the most active, and as a result, surface area is focused just below the snowline altitude. Yet the effect of this distinct glacial hypsometric signature on glacial extent and therefore on continued glacial erosion has not previously been examined. Here we show how this topographic configuration influences the climatic sensitivity of Alpine glaciers, and how the development of a glacial hypsometric distribution influences the intensity of glaciations on timescales of more than a few glacial cycles. We find that the relationship between variations in climate and the resulting variation in areal extent of glaciation changes drastically with the degree of glacial modification in the landscape. First, in landscapes with novel glaciations, a nearly linear relationship between climate and glacial area exists. Second, in previously glaciated landscapes with extensive area at a similar elevation, highly nonlinear and rapid glacial expansions occur with minimal climate forcing, once the snowline reaches the hypsometric maximum. Our results also show that erosion associated with glaciations before the mid-Pleistocene transition at around 950,000 years ago probably preconditioned the landscape--producing glacial landforms and hypsometric maxima--such that ongoing cooling led to a significant change in glacial extent and erosion, resulting in more extensive glaciations and valley deepening in the late Pleistocene epoch. We thus provide a mechanism that explains previous observations from exposure dating and low-temperature thermochronology in the European Alps, and suggest that there is a strong topographic control on the most recent Quaternary period glaciations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't