Arctic glaciers and ice caps through the Holocene:a circumpolar synthesis of lake-based reconstructions

Laura J. Larocca, Yarrow Axford

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The recent retreat of nearly all glaciers and ice caps (GICs) located in Arctic regions is one of the most clear and visible signs of ongoing climate change. This paper synthesizes published records of Holocene GIC fluctuations from lake archives, placing their recent retreat into a longer-term context. Our compilation includes 66 lake-based GIC records (plus one non-lake-based record from the Russian Arctic) from seven Arctic regions: Alaska, Baffin Island in northeastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Scandinavian peninsula, Svalbard, and the Russian high Arctic. For each region and for the full Arctic, we summarize evidence for when GICs were smaller than today or absent altogether, indicating warmer-than-present summers, and evidence for when GICs regrew in lake catchments, indicating summer cooling. Consistent with orbitally driven high boreal summer insolation in the early Holocene, the full Arctic compilation suggests that the majority (50% or more) of studied GICs were smaller than present or absent by 1/410ka. We find the highest percentage (>90%) of Arctic GICs smaller than present or absent in the middle Holocene at 1/47-6ka, probably reflecting more spatially ubiquitous and consistent summer warmth during this period than in the early Holocene. Following this interval of widespread warmth, our compilation shows that GICs across the Arctic began to regrow and summers began to cool by 1/46ka. Together, the Arctic records also suggest two periods of enhanced GIC growth in the middle to late Holocene from 1/44.5-3 and after 1/42ka. The regional records show variability in the timing of GIC regrowth within and between regions, suggesting that the Arctic did not cool synchronously despite the smooth and hemispherically symmetric decline in Northern Hemisphere summer insolation. In agreement with other studies, this implies a combined response to glacier-specific characteristics such as topography and to other climatic forcings and feedback mechanisms, perhaps driving periods of increased regional cooling. Today, the direction of orbital forcing continues to favor GIC expansion; however, the rapid retreat of nearly all Arctic GICs underscores the current dominance of anthropogenic forcing on GIC mass balance. Our review finds that in the first half of the Holocene, most of the Arctic's small GICs became significantly reduced or melted away completely in response to summer temperatures that, on average, were only moderately warmer than today. In comparison, future projections of temperature change in the Arctic far exceed estimated early Holocene values in most locations, portending the eventual loss of most of the Arctic's small GICs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)579-606
Number of pages28
JournalClimate of the Past
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 30 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Financial support. This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs (CAREER award no. 1454734) and Geography and Spatial Sciences Program (DDRI award no. 1812764).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Laura J. Larocca.

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