The researchers suggest that the behavior of mountain glaciers constitutes one of the clearest signals of climate change on the planet, thanks in part to their decades-long response time when it comes to environmental change.

“It turns out this decades timescale is the sweet spot for detecting climate change,” Roe said. “You get the purest mathematical signal of climate change if you have a timescale of about 20 or 30 years.”  

This also means that the statistical method used in this study wouldn’t necessarily work for the iconic glaciers found on the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets, which can have response times of hundreds or even thousands of years.

The study’s findings constitute “a significant upgrade to our understanding of the relationship between climate trends and glacier retreat,” Roe said. They may also drive home — yet again — the dramatic influence climate change is already having all over the world.

“[Glaciers] have been a poster child of climate change,” Roe said. “And people really need something to be able to look at, see pictures of and have an intuition and understanding of what climate change means.”