Glacier variations during the last few centuries have shown a marked coherence over the globe. Characteristic features are the maximum stand somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the steady retreat afterwards (with some minor interruptions depending on the particular region). In many papers, qualitative statements have been made about the causes of these fluctuations. Lower temperatures associated with solar variability and/or volcanic activity are the most popular explanations. In particular, the statistical relation between glacier activity and major volcanic eruptions appears to be strong.
In this paper, an attempt is made to simulate recent glacier fluctations with a physics-based model. A simple climate model, calculating perturbations of surface-radiation balance and air temperature (not necessarily in phase!), is coupled to a schematic time-dependent glacier model. The climate model is forced by volcanic activity (Greenland acidity and/or Lamb’s dust-veil index) and greenhouse warming. Solar variability was not considered, because its effect on climate has still not been demonstrated in a convincing way. The output is translated into variations in equilibrium-line altitude, driving the glacier model.
The simulated variations in glacier length show good agreement with the observed record, but the amplitude is too small. This is improved when mass-balance gradients are assumed to be larger in warmer climates. Compared to recently published modelling studies of particular glaciers, in which series of local parameters (e.g. tree-ring width and temperature) were used as forcing, the present simulation is better. This suggests that the radiation balance is a decisive factor with regard to glacier variations on longer time-scales. The model experiments lend support to the results of Porter (1986), who concluded from a more qualitative study that a strong relation exists between periods of increased volcanic activity and glacier advances.
A comparison of some selected runs shows that, according to the present model, the greenhouse warming would be responsible for about 50% of the glacier retreat observed over the last 100 years.