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Glaciers (CLIM 007) - Assessment published Nov 2012

Indicator Assessment Created 06 Nov 2012 Published 19 Nov 2012 Last modified 13 Dec 2013, 02:22 PM
Note: new version is available!
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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

Key policy question: What is the trend in the mass and volume of glaciers across Europe?

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.

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.

Data source:
Downloads and more info

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).

Data source:
Downloads and more info

Key assessment

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?“.

Data sources

More information about this indicator

See this indicator specification for more details.

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 in October-December (Q4)


European Environment Agency (EEA)
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