A process-oriented modeling approach is applied in order to simulate glacier mass balance for individual glaciers using statistically downscaled general circulation models (GCMs). Glacier-specific seasonal sensitivity characteristics based on a mass balance model of intermediate complexity are used to simulate mass balances of Nigardsbreen (Norway) and Rhonegletscher (Switzerland). Simulations using reanalyses (ECMWF) for the period 1979–93 are in good agreement with in situ mass balance measurements for Nigardsbreen. The method\ud is applied to multicentury integrations of coupled (ECHAM4/OPYC) and mixed-layer (ECHAM4/MLO) GCMs excluding external forcing. A high correlation between decadal variations in the North Atlantic oscillation (NAO) and mass balance of the glaciers is found. The dominant factor for this relationship is the strong impact of winter precipitation associated with the NAO. A high NAO phase means enhanced (reduced) winter precipitation for Nigardsbreen (Rhonegletscher), typically leading to a higher (lower) than normal annual mass balance. This mechanism, entirely due to internal variations in the climate system, can explain observed strong positive mass\ud balances for Nigardsbreen and other maritime Norwegian glaciers within the period 1980–95. It can also partly be responsible for recent strong negative mass balances of Alpine glaciers
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