Climate: Past, Present & Future

Proxy of the Month

Mountain glacier variations: natural thermometers and rainfall gauges

Mountain glacier variations: natural thermometers and rainfall gauges
Name of proxy

Fluctuations of mountain glaciers

Type of record

Geomorphological features


Continent – High mountain areas

Period of time investigated

From historical periods (c.a. 300 years ago) to the end of the Pleistocene (up to 200 000 years back in time)

How does it work?

Mountain – or “alpine” – glaciers are small ice bodies (from 1 to 10 000 km2). Although they represent only 0.3% of the total volume of the present-day cryosphere, they contain a large amount of useful information on the past climatic conditions on the continents. The position of the glacier margins, and its volume, is defined by its mass balance (the balance between ice accumulation and ice melt), that is mainly controlled by two important climate variables: air temperature and snow precipitation. Their internal behaviour is very sensitive to climate change, and they respond rapidly (<50 years) to climatic fluctuations. This gives alpine glaciers the ability to record climate change with a high temporal resolution.

The peculiarity of this climatic proxy is that it brings together several fields of research: glaciology, geomorphology, geochronology, and numerical modeling. In order to interpret mountain glacier fluctuations as climatic proxies, it is necessary to:

(i) Observe and interpret past glaciated landscapes (including landforms such as moraines and roches moutonnées) to infer past mass balances. This task often requires several days of field work in remote high area locations (Fig. 1a);
(ii) Establish the age of formation of these landscapes, most of the time using carbon-14, or other rare isotopes (such as beryllium-10 or helium-3). The concentrations of these rare isotopes increases with the time spent by a rock at the surface (Fig. 1b);
(iii) Perform computer-based numerical model simulations to infer the main climatic parameters (temperatures and precipitation) from the variations of glacial volumes (Fig. 1c).

Figure 1: Summary of the methodology used to derive paleoclimatic conditions from the fluctuations of mountain glaciers a) Sampling of a boulder sitting on a moraine for surface exposure dating using cosmogenic helium-3 (Altiplano, Tropical Andes), b) Principles of dating using in situ cosmogenic nuclides, c) Numerical modeling to interpret past glacial extent in paleotemperatures and paleoprecipitation conditions (from Blard et al., 2007)

Note that the position of a glacier may be considered as a “2 unknowns – 1 equation” problem, making useful any independent inputs from other continental paleoclimatic proxies, when available. These could for example be pollen-based reconstructions, lake level fluctuations or isotopic tools (measured in speleothems, lacustrine inorganic deposits or biogenic carbonates) that can bring quantitative constraints on temperature, precipitation or both (see previous posts for more information). If such complementary proxies are not available in the studied areas, it is necessary to remain cautious and propose a range of possible paleotemperature and paleoprecipitation reconstructions (Fig. 1c).

What are the key findings made using this proxy?

In some high altitude areas, Alpine glaciers, and changes in their mass balance over time, are the only indicators of paleoclimatic change. They have e.g. allowed us to understand that:
(i) The end of the Last Glacial Maximum (c.a. 18,000 years ago) was broadly synchronous (Schaefer et al., 2006; Clark et al., 2009);

(ii) The lapse rate (i.e. the vertical temperature gradient in the atmosphere – temperatures are lower higher up a mountain) was steepened during the Last Glacial Maximum (Blard et al., 2007), although this is controversial in some regions (Tripati et al., 2014);

(iii) The Little Ice Age (XVIIth-XIXth centuries) was a global event (Rabatel et al., 2006);

(iv) Because glaciers respond to both temperatures and precipitation amount, glacier fluctuations have also been used to reconstruct the changes in past precipitation or ‘paleoprecipitation’ at a high spatial resolution. The typical size of glacier watersheds is few hundreds to thousands square kilometers, which make them ideal paleorainfall gauges. This allows us to determine the paleoprecipitation variability at the regional scale (e.g. Martin, 2016 used paleoglaciers to establish the spatial pattern of rainfall in the Tropical Andes during the Heinrich 1 event, 16,000 years ago).

Blard et al. (2007) - Persistence of full glacial conditions in the central Pacific until 15,000 years ago, Nature 449 (7162), 591.

Clark et al. (2009) - The last glacial maximum, Science 325 (5941), 710-714.

Martin, PhD Thesis, Université de Lorraine, 2016

Rabatel et al. (2006) - Glacier recession on Cerro Charquini (16 S), Bolivia, since the maximum of the Little Ice Age (17th century), Journal of Glaciology 52 (176), 110-118.

Schaefer et al. (2006) - Near-synchronous interhemispheric termination of the last glacial maximum in mid-latitudes, Science 312 (5779), 1510-1513.

Tripati et al. (2014) - Modern and glacial tropical snowlines controlled by sea surface temperature and atmospheric mixing, Nature Geoscience 7 (3), 205-209.

Edited by the editorial board

Forams, the sea thermometers of the past!

Forams, the sea thermometers of the past!
Name of proxy

Mg/Ca-SST on planktonic foraminifera shell

Type of record

Sea Surface Temperature (SST)


Marine environments

Period of time investigated

55 Million years ago to recent times

How does it work ?

Foraminifera (or Forams) are single-celled organisms varying from less than 1 mm to several cm in size. They are very abundant in the ocean floor (benthic species) or floating amongst the marine plankton (planktonic species) where they produce their shells mostly using calcite (CaCO3). The oldest fossils of benthic foraminifera date back to the Cambrian period (older than 485 million year ago (Ma)) (Armstrong and Brasier, 2005). Planktonic species are younger than the benthic group. For instance, the species Globigerina bulloides (Figure 1) range from Middle Jurassic (180 Ma) to recent times (Sen Gupta, 1999).

A large spectrum of information can be provided by the analysis of foraminifera shells, based on the chemical composition and morphology of their shells as well as the species abundance patterns. One type of proxy is the ratio between the abundance of magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca) (Mg/Ca ratio) present in the calcite shell. During the formation of the shell, Mg is incorporated and may weaken the shells. In some cases, it seems that foraminifera expend energy to control the incorporation of Mg (Toler et al., 2001). The substitution of Mg into calcite depends on the temperature of the seawater, so that the amount of Mg in the shell exponentially increases from cold to warm water (Lea, 1999). This means that the Mg/Ca ratio of the shells is expected to rise with increasing temperature (Rosenthal, 2007). Measuring the Mg/Ca ratio of foraminifera shells therefore allows reconstructing the sea surface temperature (SST) of the past.

What are the key findings that have been done using Mg/Ca-SST?

Past SST determination is essential for understanding past changes in climate. An advantage of the Mg/Ca ratio measured on the shells of planktonic foraminifera is that the same sample can be used for different types of analyses in order to obtain a large set of information on the past sea conditions (Elderfield and Ganssen, 2000; Barker et al., 2005). Another advantage of this Mg/Ca proxy is the possibility to reconstruct changes of temperature within the water column using multiple species living at different depths and/or coming from different seasonal habitats (Barker et al., 2005). This can give us, for example, valuable information for describing seasons in the past.

Planktonic foraminifera can survive in a wide range of environments, from polar to tropical areas, thus the analysis of their shells allows reconstructing the ocean conditions all around the world. Moreover, foraminifera are very sensitive to temperature and environmental changes therefore it is possible to reconstruct climate changes of various amplitudes and timescales, e.g. the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (55 Ma) or the more recent climate oscillations (Zachos et al., 2003; Cisneros et al., 2016). For instance, Figure 2 shows that Mg/Ca ratio allows reconstructing the ~2ºC warming observed from the Roman Period onset to higher frequency thermal variability like those observed in the Little Ice Age (LIA).

Figure 2: Sea Surface Temperature (SST) record stack for the last 2700 years reconstructed by means of Mg/Ca analysed on the shell of the planktonic foraminifera Globigerina bulloides in the central-western Mediterranean Sea. The different historical/climate periods are indicated: TP=Talaiotic Period, RP=Roman Period, DMA=Dark Middle Ages, MCA=Medieval Climate Anomaly, LIA=Little Ice Age, IE=Industrial Era. Years are expressed as Before Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE). The grey shaded area integrates uncertainties of average values and represents 1 sigma of the absolute values. This uncertainty includes analytical precision and reproducibility and the uncertainties derived from the G. bulloides core-top calibration developed in the original reference. (Modified from Cisneros et al., 2016).


This article has been edited by Célia Sapart and Carole Nehme
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