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Glacier shrinkage driving global changes in downstream systems

  1. Lee E. Brownp
  1. aSchool of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, United Kingdom;
  2. bInstitute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK 99775;
  3. cStream Biofim and Ecosystem Research Laboratory, School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland;
  4. dNatural History Museum, University of Oslo, 0318 Oslo, Norway;
  5. eRiver Ecology and Conservation Research, Institute of Ecology, University of Innsbruck, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria;
  6. fInstitut de Recherche pour le Développement 247 CNRS-Université Paris-Sud-9191, 91198 Gif-sur Yvette, France;
  7. gInstitut National de Recherche en Sciences et Technologies pour l’Environnement et l’Agriculture, Milieux Aquatiques, écologie et Pollutions - Lyon, 69100 Villeurbanne, France;
  8. hInstitute of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Iceland, IS-101 Reykjavik, Iceland;
  9. iFreshwater Biological Laboratory, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark;
  10. jDepartment of Geography, The University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, United Kingdom;
  11. kDepartment of Natural Science, University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau, AK 99801;
  12. lInvertebrate Zoology and Hydrobiology Department, MUSE-Museo delle Scienze, I-38123 Trento, Italy;
  13. mMarine and Freshwater Research Institute, IS-101 Reykjavik, Iceland;
  14. nSwiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, 8600 Dubendorf, Switzerland;
  15. oBristol Glaciology Centre, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, United Kingdom;
  16. pSchool of Geography and [email protected], University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, United Kingdom
  1. Edited by Andrea Rinaldo, école Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland, and approved July 25, 2017 (received for review February 3, 2017)


Glaciers cover ~10% of the Earth’s land surface, but they are shrinking rapidly across most parts of the world, leading to cascading impacts on downstream systems. Glaciers impart unique footprints on river flow at times when other water sources are low. Changes in river hydrology and morphology caused by climate-induced glacier loss are projected to be the greatest of any hydrological system, with major implications for riverine and near-shore marine environments. Here, we synthesize current evidence of how glacier shrinkage will alter hydrological regimes, sediment transport, and biogeochemical and contaminant fluxes from rivers to oceans. This will profoundly influence the natural environment, including many facets of biodiversity, and the ecosystem services that glacier-fed rivers provide to humans, particularly provision of water for agriculture, hydropower, and consumption. We conclude that human society must plan adaptation and mitigation measures for the full breadth of impacts in all affected regions caused by glacier shrinkage.


  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: a.m.milner{at}bham.ac.uk.
  • Author contributions: A.M.M., D.J., and D.M.H. generated the proposal to the European Science Foundation; A.M.M. organized the workshop; G.M.G., D.J., V.L., and J.S.ó. supplied the data; K.K. analyzed the data for the Tipping Point Analysis; L.E.B. developed the conceptual framework for ecosystem services; and all authors contributed to discussions, writing, and editing of the paper.

  • The authors declare no conflict of interest.

  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

  • This article contains supporting information online at www.danielhellerman.com/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1619807114/-/DCSupplemental.

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