Published (reviewed and quality assured)
Justification for indicator selection
Glacier changes are among the most visible indications of the effects of climate change. Glaciers are particularly sensitive to changes in the global climate because their surface temperature is close to the freezing/melting point (Zemp et al., 2006). Glacier fluctuations showed a strong relation to air temperature throughout the 20th century (Greene, 2005). Therefore the change in the mass balance of glaciers is considered to be an immediate signal of global warming trends. A negative mass balance indicates that the loss of ice, mainly from melting and calving in summer, is larger than the accumulation from snowfall in winter.
Glaciers are an important freshwater resource and act as 'water towers' for lower-lying regions. In the coming decades, we can first expect more melt water from the glaciers running into rivers. As the glaciers diminish, however, the annual melt water, and therefore their contribution to river flow and sea-level rise, will decrease. This will have serious consequences for freshwater supply, river navigation, ecosystems fed by water from rivers, irrigation facilities, and power generation. Furthermore, the solute release from melting rock-glaciers may affect the water quality of high mountain lakes adversely by the intrusion of heavy metals (Thies et al., 2007).
Strong retreat of glaciers can cause instabilities resulting in hazardous incidents such as glacier lake outbursts, rock-ice avalanches and landslides (Pralong and Funk, 2005; Huggel et al., 2007). This may cause damage to infrastructure. Glacier retreat affects tourism and winter sports in the mountains (OECD, 2007) and changes the appearance of mountain landscapes.
Improved glacier monitoring, and adaptation options such as water management measures, draining of glacier-lakes and construction of protective walls can reduce some of the risks and negative consequences, but not all.
- References Andreassen, L.M.; Elvehøy, H.; Kjøllmoen, B.; Engeset, R.V. and Haakensen, N., 2005. Glacier mass balance and length variations in Norway. Annals of Glaciology 42, 317-325. Bamber, J. L.; Krabill, W.; Raper, V. and Dowdeswell, J., 2004. Anomalous recent growth of part of a large Arctic ice cap: Austfonna, Svalbard. Geophysical Research Letters 31(12), L12402. Bevan, S.; Luckman, A.; Murray, T.; Sykes, H. and Kohler, J., 2007. Positive mass balance during the late 20th century on Austfonna, Svalbard, revealed using satellite radar interferometry. Annals of Glaciology 46: 117-122. Greene, A.M., 2005. A time constant for hemispheric glacier mass balance. Journal of Glaciology 51 (174): 353-362. Haeberli, W.; Noetzli, J.; Zemp, M.; Baumann, S.; Frauenfelder R. and Hoelzle, M., 2005. Glacier Mass Balance Bulletin No. 8, 2002-2003. IUGG(CCS)-UNEP-UNESCO-WMO, World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich. Haeberli, W.; Zemp, M. and Hoelzle, M., 2007. Glacier Mass Balance Bulletin No.9, 2004-2005. ISCU(FAGS)- IUGG(IACS)-UNEP-UNESCO-WMO, World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich. Hagen, J. O.; Melvold, K.; Kohler, J. and Winther, J.-G., 2003. Glaciers in Svalbard: mass balance, runoff and freshwater flux. Polar Research 22 (2): 145-159. Huggel, C.; Haeberli, W. and Kääb, A., 2007. Glacial hazards: changing threats, response and management in different high-mountain regions of the world. In: B. Orlove, B. Luckman, E. Wiegandt (Eds.), The Darkening Peaks: Glacial Retreat in Scientific and Social Context, University of California Press. Kohler, J.; James, T. D.; Murray, T.; Nuth, C.; Brandt, O.; Barrand, N. E.; Aas, H. F. and Luckman, A., 2007. Acceleration in thinning rate on western Svalbard glaciers. Geophysical Research Letters 34, L18502, DOI:10.1029/2007GL030681. Nesje, A.; Bakke, J.; Dahl, S. O.; Lie, O. and Matthews, J. A., 2008. Norwegian mountain glaciers in the past, present and future. Global and Planetary Change 60: 10-27. Nuth, C.; Kohler, J.; Aas, H. F.; Brandt, O. and Hagen, J. O., 2007. Glacier geometry and elevation changes on Svalbard (1936-90). Annals of Glaciology 46: 106-116. OECD, 2007. Climate Change in the European Alps, OECD publishing; Paris, France. Paul, F.; Kääb, A.; Maisch, M.; Kellenberger, T. and Haeberli, W., 2004. Rapid disintegration of Alpine glaciers observed with satellite data. Geophysical Research Letters 31: L21402. Pralong, A. and Funk, M., 2005. On the instability of hanging glaciers. Journal of Glaciology 52 (176): 31-48. Sugiyama, S.; Bauder, A.; Zahno, C. and Funk, M., 2007. Evolution of Rhonegletscher, Switzerland, over the past 125 years and in the future: application of an improved flowline model. Annals of Glaciology 46: 268-274. Thies, H.-J.; M Nickus, U.; Mair, V.; Tessadri, R.; Tait, D.; Thaler, B. and Psenner, R., 2007. Unexpected Response of High alpine Lake Waters to Climate Warming. Environmental Science & Technology 41: 7424-7429. UNEP, 2008. Meltdown in the Mountains. UNEP Zürich/ Nairobi 2008. Zemp, M.; Frauenfelder, R.; Haeberli, W. and Hoelzle, M., 2005. Worldwide glacier mass balance measurements: General trends and first results of the extraordinary year 2003 in Central Europe. In: Sciences R.A.o. (eds). XIII Glaciological Symposium, Shrinkage of the Glaciosphere: Facts and Analysis 97. St. Petersburg, Russia. Zemp, M.; Haeberli, W.; Hoelzle, M. and Paul, F., 2006. Alpine glaciers to disappear within decades? Geophysical Research Letters 33: L13504.
- Cumulative specific net mass balance of glaciers from all European glaciated regions 1946-2006
- Modelled remains of the glacier cover in the European Alps for an increase in average summer air temperature of 1 to 5 °C
Policy context and targets
In April 2009 the European Commission presented a White Paper on the framework for adaptation policies and measures to reduce the European Union's vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. The aim is to increase the resilience to climate change of health, property and the productive functions of land, inter alia by improving the management of water resources and ecosystems. More knowledge is needed on climate impact and vulnerability but a considerable amount of information and research already exists which can be shared better through a proposed Clearing House Mechanism. The White Paper stresses the need to mainstream adaptation into existing and new EU policies. A number of Member States have already taken action and several have prepared national adaptation plans. The EU is also developing actions to enhance and finance adaptation in developing countries as part of a new post-2012 global climate agreement expected in Copenhagen (Dec. 2009). For more information see: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/climat/adaptation/index_en.htm
No targets have been specified
Related policy documents
No related policy documents have been specified
Key policy question
Methodology for indicator calculation
Methodology for gap filling
No methodology references available.
EEA data references
- No datasets have been specified here.
External data references
Data sources in latest figures
Data sets uncertainty
No uncertainty has been specified
Short term work
Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.
Long term work
Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.
Responsibility and ownership
EEA Contact InfoHans-Martin Füssel
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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