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New study links human greenhouse gas emissions to melting NZ glaciers

Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King, NIWA

New study links human greenhouse gas emissions to melting NZ glaciers

New modelling has shown human-induced climate change significantly increased the likelihood of mass ice melt on New Zealand’s glaciers.

New study links human greenhouse gas emissions to melting NZ glaciers

Researchers at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Antarctic Research Centre  analysed two years in which glaciers in New Zealand melted the most in at least four decades: 2011 and 2018. These years were characterised by warmer than average temperatures of the air and the surface of the ocean, particularly during summer.

The study shows that high levels of glacier melt in 2018 were at least 10 times more likely to have happened due to climate change.

The analysis also shows climate change made the high melt in 2011 at least six times more likely.

“These increases in likelihood are due to temperatures that are 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, confirming a connection between greenhouse gas emissions and high annual ice loss,” said Lauren Vargo, lead author of the study.

It’s the first study to attribute annual glacier melt to climate change, and only the second to directly link glacier melt to climate change.

“We used a method called extreme event attribution, which is used to calculate the human influence on extreme climate events like heatwaves and droughts,” Dr Vargo said.

“To get these results, we developed a framework that uses extreme event attribution together with calculating glacier mass changes with computer models.”

One example given was the extreme loss of mass seen of the Rolleston glacier in 2011. Vargo said that would be a 1 in 100 year event under natural conditions, but due to climate change this has become a 1 in 8 year event.

“Our results show that New Zealand glaciers are melting because of greenhouse gases emitted by humans,” Vargo said.

“Glaciers in New Zealand are important for many reasons, including tourism and water resources, so we hope that our findings will encourage and convince people around the world, but especially Kiwis, that we need to take stronger actions to stop climate change.”

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