- The vast majority of glaciers in the European glacial regions are in retreat. Glaciers in the European Alps have lost approximately two thirds of their volume since 1850, with clear acceleration since the 1980s.
- Glacier retreat is expected to continue in the future. The volume of European glaciers has been estimated to decline between 22 and 84 % compared to the current situation by 2100 under a moderate greenhouse gas forcing scenario and between 38 and 89% under a high forcing scenario.
- Glacier retreat has contributed to global sea-level rise with about 0.8 mm per year in 2005-2009. It also affects freshwater supply and run off regimes, river navigation, irrigation and power generation. Furthermore it may cause natural hazards and damage to infrastructure.
What is the trend in the mass and volume of glaciers across Europe?
A general loss of glacier mass has occurred in all European glacier regions except Norway (Figure 1). The Alps have lost between 50 and 80% of their ice mass since 1850, and individual glaciers have faced even greater losses [i]. Norwegian coastal glaciers were expanding and gaining mass up to the end of the 1990s due to increased winter snowfall on the north Atlantic coast; now these glaciers are also retreating [ii]. Some ice caps at higher elevations in north-eastern Svalbard seem to be increasing in thickness, but estimates for Svalbard as a whole show a declining mass balance [iii]. The centennial retreat of European glaciers is attributed primarily to increased summer temperatures. However, changes in winter precipitation, reduced glacier albedo due to the lack of summer snow fall and various other feedback processes, such as the increasing debris cover on the glacier, can influence the behaviour of glaciers, in particular on a regional and decadal scale.
The melting of glaciers is contributing to global sea level rise. For the period 2005-2009, the contribution was about 0.8 mm per year, which is significantly higher than the average of about 0.6 mm per year during the period 1971-2009 [iv].
The retreat of European glaciers is projected to continue throughout the 21st century (Figure 2). One study estimates that the volume of European glaciers will decline between 22 and 84 % under a moderate greenhouse gas forcing scenario (RCP4.5) and between 38 and 89% under a high forcing scenario (RCP8.5) compared to the current situation (all European regions combined) [v]. The relative volume loss is largest in central Europe (83 ± 10 % for RCP4.5 and 95 ± 4 % for RCP8.5). In Norway nearly all smaller glaciers are projected to disappear and overall glacier area as well as volume may be reduced by about one third by 2100 even under the low SRES B2 emissions scenario [vi].
[i] World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) “Glacier Mass Balance Bulletin No. 12,” (2013) Zurich, Switzerland, 106 pp, publication based on database version:doi:10.5904/wgms-fog-2013-11; Michael Zemp et al., “Alpine Glaciers to Disappear within Decades?,” Geophysical Research Letters 33 (2006): L13504, doi:10.1029/2006GL026319; Wilfried Haeberli et al. “Vanishing glaciers in the European Alps,” Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Scripta Varia 118 (2013): 1-9.
[ii] Liss M. Andreassen et al., “Glacier Mass-Balance and Length Variation in Norway,” Annals of Glaciology 42, no. 1 (August 1, 2005): 317–325, doi:10.3189/172756405781812826; Atle Nesje et al., “Norwegian Mountain Glaciers in the Past, Present and Future,” Global and Planetary Change 60, no. 1–2 (January 2008): 10–27, doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2006.08.004.
[iii] Jonathan Bamber, “Anomalous Recent Growth of Part of a Large Arctic Ice Cap: Austfonna, Svalbard,” Geophysical Research Letters 31, no. 12 (2004), doi:10.1029/2004GL019667; Suzanne Bevan et al., “Positive Mass Balance during the Late 20th Century on Austfonna, Svalbard, Revealed Using Satellite Radar Interferometry,” Annals of Glaciology 46, no. 1 (October 1, 2007): 117–122, doi:10.3189/172756407782871477; Timothy D. James et al., “Observations of enhanced thinning in the upper reaches of Svalbard glaciers,” The Cryosphere 6 (2012): 1369-1381, doi:10.5194/tc-6-1369-2012; M. Xu et al., “Comparative studies of glacier mass balance and their climatic implications in Svalbard, Northern Scandinavia, and Southern Norway,” Environmental Earth Sciences 67 (2012): 1407–1414, doi: 10.1007/s12665-012-1585-3.
[iv] D. G. Vaughan et al., “Observations: Cryosphere,” in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis., ed. T. F. Stocker et al. (Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Chapter 4, http://www.climatechange2013.org/report/full-report/.
[v] Valentina Radić et al., “Regional and Global Projections of Twenty-First Century Glacier Mass Changes in Response to Climate Scenarios from Global Climate Models,” Climate Dynamics (2013): 1–22, doi:10.1007/s00382-013-1719-7.
[vi] Nesje et al., “Norwegian Mountain Glaciers in the Past, Present and Future.”
Indicator specification and metadata
- Cumulative specific net mass balance of European glaciers
- Projected changes in the volume of all mountain glaciers and ice caps in the European glaciated regions
- Mass balance (m water equivalent)
- Volume (km³)
Policy context and targets
In April 2013 the European Commission presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package (http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/adaptation/what/documentation_en.htm). This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change /* COM/2013/0216 final */ and a number of supporting documents. One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which should occur through Bridging the knowledge gap and Further developing Climate-ADAPT as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Further objectives include Promoting action by Member States and Climate-proofing EU action: promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors. Many EU Member States have already taken action, such as by adopting national adaptation strategies, and several have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation.
The European Commission and the European Environment Agency have developed the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT, http://climate-adapt.eea.europa.eu/) to share knowledge on observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health; on relevant research; on EU, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans; and on adaptation case studies.
No targets have been specified.
Related policy documents
Climate-ADAPT: Mainstreaming adaptation in EU sector policies
Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
Climate-ADAPT: National adaptation strategies
Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives later. This webportal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
EU Adaptation Strategy Package
In April 2013 the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it will enhance the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.
Methodology for indicator calculation
Various methods are used to estimate mass balances. A literature overview can be found under http://www.wgms.ch/literature.html .
Projections of volume changes are based on melt in response to transient, spatially differentiated twenty-first century projections of temperature and precipitation from ten global climate models.
Methodology for gap filling
- Radić & Hock (2011): Regionally differentiated contribution of mountain glaciers and ice caps to future sea-level rise Nature Geoscience 4 , 91–94 doi:10.1038/ngeo1052
Data sets uncertainty
Data on the cryosphere vary significantly with regard to availability and quality. Snow and ice cover have been monitored globally since satellite measurements started in the 1970s. Improvements in technology allow for more detailed observations and higher resolution.
Further information on uncertainties is provided in Section 1.7 of the EEA report on Climate change, impacts, and vulnerability in Europe 2012 (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/climate-impacts-and-vulnerability-2012/)
No uncertainty has been specified
Fluctuation of Glaciers Database (FoG)
provided by World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS)
Projected changes in the volume of all mountain glaciers and ice caps in the European glaciated regions
provided by University of British Columbia (UBC)
Climate change (Primary topic)
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
- CLIM 007
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoHans-Martin Füssel
EEA Management Plan2013 2.0.1 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
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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