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Indicator Assessment Created 06 Nov 2012 Published 19 Nov 2012 Last modified 04 Sep 2015, 07:00 PM
Note: new version is available!
Topics: ,
Indicator codes: CLIM 007

Key messages

  • 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 66 % compared to the current situation by 2100 under a business-as-usual emission scenario.
  • Glacier retreat contributes to sea-level rise and it affects freshwater supply and run off regimes, river navigation, irrigation and power generation. It may also cause natural hazards and damage to infrastructure.

What is the trend in the mass and volume of glaciers across Europe?

Cumulative specific net mass balance of European glaciers

Note: The figure shows the cumulative specific net mass balance (mm water equivalent) of European glaciers 1946–2010.

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Projected changes in the volume of all mountain glaciers and ice caps in the European glaciated regions

Note: This figure shows the projected volume (in cubic km) for 2001–2100 of all mountain glaciers and ice caps in the European glaciated regions derived using a mass balance model driven with temperature and precipitation scenarios from 10 GCMs. European Alps (top left), Scandinavia (top right), Iceland (bottom left), Svalbard (bottom right).

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Past trends

A general loss of glacier mass has occurred in nearly all European glacier regions (Figure 1). The Alps have lost about two thirds of their ice mass since 1850 [i][ii][iii] and individual glaciers have faced even greater losses. Glaciers in different regions have been affected somewhat differently by recent climate change. In particular, 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 [iv][v]. Some ice caps at higher elevations in north-eastern Svalbard seem to be increasing in thickness [vi][vii], but estimates for Svalbard as a whole show a declining mass balance [viii][ix]. 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 retreat of European glaciers is projected to continue throughout the 21st century. One study estimate that the volume of European glaciers will decline between 22 and 66 % compared to the current situation (all European regions combined) (see Figure 2) [x]. The relative volume loss is largest in the European Alps (76 ± 15 % standard deviation of 10 climate scenarios). 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[xi]. If summer air temperatures were to rise by 3 °C and precipitation remained constant, the European Alps could lose about 80 % of their average ice cover compared to the period 1971–1990 [xii].

[i] Michael Zemp et al., „Worldwide glacier mass balance measurements: General trends and first results of the extraordinary year 2003 in Central Europe“, Data Glaciol. Stud. 99 (2005): 3–12.

[ii] Michael Zemp et al., „Alpine glaciers to disappear within decades?“, Geophysical Research Letters 33 (2006): L13504, doi:10.1029/2006GL026319.

[iii] Michael Zemp et al., „Glacier Fluctuations in the European Alps, 1850-2000: An Overview and a Spatiotemporal Analysis of Available Data“, in Darkening Peaks: Glacier Retreat, Science, and Society, ed. Benjamin S. Orlove, Ellen Wiegandt, und Brian H. Luckman (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 152–167.

[iv] Liss M. Andreassen et al., „Glacier mass-balance and length variation in Norway“, Annals of Glaciology 42, Nr. 1 (August 1, 2005): 317–325, doi:10.3189/172756405781812826.

[v] Atle Nesje et al., „Norwegian mountain glaciers in the past, present and future“, Global and Planetary Change 60, Nr. 1–2 (Januar 2008): 10–27, doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2006.08.004.

[vi] Jonathan Bamber, „Anomalous recent growth of part of a large Arctic ice cap: Austfonna, Svalbard“, Geophysical Research Letters 31, Nr. 12 (2004), doi:10.1029/2004GL019667.

[vii] Suzanne Bevan et al., „Positive mass balance during the late 20th century on Austfonna, Svalbard, revealed using satellite radar interferometry“, Annals of Glaciology 46, Nr. 1 (Oktober 1, 2007): 117–122, doi:10.3189/172756407782871477.

[viii] Jon Ove Hagen et al., „Glaciers in Svalbard: mass balance, runoff and freshwater flux“, Polar Research 22, Nr. 2 (Dezember 2003): 145–159, doi:10.1111/j.1751-8369.2003.tb00104.x.

[ix] J. Kohler et al., „Acceleration in thinning rate on western Svalbard glaciers“, Geophysical Research Letters 34, Nr. 18 (September 21, 2007), doi:10.1029/2007GL030681.

[x] Valentina Radić and Regine Hock, „Regionally differentiated contribution of mountain glaciers and ice caps to future sea-level rise“, Nature Geoscience 4 (Januar 9, 2011): 91–94, doi:10.1038/ngeo1052.

[xi] Nesje et al., „Norwegian mountain glaciers in the past, present and future“.

[xii] Zemp et al., „Alpine glaciers to disappear within decades?“.

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

  • 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

Context description

In April 2013 the European Commission presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package ( 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, 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 .

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

Not applicable

Methodology references

No methodology references available.


Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable

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 (

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Generic metadata


Climate change Climate change (Primary topic)

europe | climate change | cryosphere | glaciers
DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 007
Temporal coverage:
Geographic coverage:
Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel


EEA Management Plan

2012 2.0.1 (note: EEA internal system)


Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 4 years
European Environment Agency (EEA)
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