Cirque glacier sensitivity to 21st century warming: Sperry Glacier, Rocky Mountains, USA

Joel Brown, Joel Harper, Neil Humphrey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


The interpretation of climate change based on the behavior of small cirque glaciers is not always straightforward or unique. In this study of Sperry Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana, we model future change of the glacier under 11 different warming scenarios. The scenarios vary from no warming from present conditions to warming at a linear rate of 10°C/century. We assume constant precipitation and only consider change invoked by warming. Our cellular automata model is based on simple rules that account for mass balance gradient, aspect, avalanching, and the flow of ice to redistribute mass. We constrain the model with glaciological data including georadar-measured ice depth, field-measured surface mass balance, and field-mapped ice surface topography. Under the most probable temperature increase based on downscaled OA-GCM output for the IPCC A1B scenario, we conservatively estimate the glacier persisting through at least 2080. By comparing glacier volume responses to different warming scenarios we elucidate a relationship between the magnitude of temperature change and the sensitivity of the glacier to small variations in the temperature increase. We find that the greater the magnitude of the temperature increase, the less sensitive the glacier area and volume become to slight differences in the warming rate. If we generalize this relationship to the region, we expect that a small change in climate will produce varying responses for glaciers throughout the region, whereas the glacier response to a large change in climate will likely be very similar over the entire region.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-98
Number of pages8
JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 2010


  • Cirque glacier
  • Glacier
  • Glacier modeling


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