Historical glacier change on Svalbard predicts doubling of mass loss by 2100
The melting of glaciers and ice caps accounts for about one-third of current sea-level rise1–3, exceeding the mass loss from the more voluminous Greenland or Antarctic Ice Sheets3,4. The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, which hosts spatial climate gradients that are larger than the expected temporal climate shifts over the next century5,6, is a natural laboratory to constrain the climate sensitivity of glaciers and predict their response to future warming. Here we link historical and modern glacier observations to predict that twenty-first century glacier thinning rates will more than double those from 1936 to 2010. Making use of an archive of historical aerial imagery7 from 1936 and 1938, we use structure-from-motion photogrammetry to reconstruct the three-dimensional geometry of 1,594 glaciers across Svalbard. We compare these reconstructions to modern ice elevation data to derive the spatial pattern of mass balance over a more than 70-year timespan, enabling us to see through the noise of annual and decadal variability to quantify how variables such as temperature and precipitation control ice loss. We find a robust temperature dependence of melt rates, whereby a 1\thinspace°C rise in mean summer temperature corresponds to a decrease in area-normalized mass balance of −0.28 m yr−1 of water equivalent. Finally, we design a space-for-time substitution8 to combine our historical glacier observations with climate projections and make first-order predictions of twenty-first century glacier change across Svalbard.