Recent elevation changes of Svalbard glaciers

The Svalbard archipelago has a vast number of ice caps and glaciers which tend to be far smaller than those flowing from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. ICESat, a NASA satellite, has provided elevation data at high enough spatial resolution to study these smaller glaciers in detail.

Geir Moholdt and his colleagues have used this data to estimate the change in ice mass across the whole Svalbard archipelago from 2003-2008. Their work is crucial because Arctic ice caps are among the greatest and fastest-changing contributors to sea-level rise, but are conversely among the least understood. They calculate that the total annual ice loss from Svalbard would be enough to fill 1.6 million Olympic swimming pools. On average, Svalbard ice thins by 12cm each year, although thinning is most dramatic in marginal areas so that the area covered by ice has shrunk. Conversely, many interior areas have actually thickened. Mass loss is also not uniform across Svalbard – the southern and western regions have lost mass more rapidly while the very remote northeastern areas have actually gained mass.

This paper provides an important insight into how the ice masses of Svalbard are evolving and shows that satellite data are now of a quality to be useful in studying smaller glaciers. However, it also demonstrates that even within a small area such as Svalbard, large regional discrepancies in mass balance occur so that in-depth studies of ice masses around the world are crucial.

Ice2sea Work Package: WP2.3

Publication: Moholdt, G., C. Nuth, J. O. Hagen, and J. Kohler (2010), Recent elevation changes of Svalbard glaciers derived from repeat track ICESat altimetry, Remote Sensing of the Environment, 114(11), 2756-2767


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