Long-term records of glacier mass changes are important for improving our understanding of glacier dynamics and for predicting the response of glaciers to future climate change. In contrast to moraine sequences that only record isolated stages of glacier status, proglacial lake sediments may record long-term continuous glacier activities. The melt of old glacier ice releases old pollen that may affect the radiocarbon ages of pollen in proglacial lake sediments. We define the offset between the calibrated pollen 14C ages and the sediment depositional age as the “old pollen effect” (OPE). In small catchments dominated by glaciers, the OPE may record variations in glacier melt intensity and extent, even though complex processes (e.g., modern pollen flux to a glacier or a proglacial lake, glacier flow velocities) may also impact the OPE. Using the sediments of a small proglacial lake on the southern Tibetan Plateau, we found that over the past 2.5 k.y., a weakened OPE occurred during three historical cool periods that coincided with regional glacier advances defined by moraine ages. Thus, we interpret the OPE as a new indicator of glacier melt intensity and its fluctuations. Our reconstructed glacier variability agrees well with glacier fluctuations in the European Alps and the global average temperature record, suggesting that hemispheric-scale temperature variations and/or mid-latitude Westerlies may have controlled the late Holocene glacier variability in monsoonal High Asia. We also show that the 20th century glacier melt intensity has exceeded that of two historical warm periods and is unprecedented over the past 2.5 k.y. This implies that current anthropogenic warming poses a serious threat to the survival of glaciers in monsoonal High Asia.
- Received 15 October 2016.
- Revision received 16 December 2016.
- Accepted 16 December 2016.
- © 2017 Geological Society of America