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Glaciers (CLIM 007) - Assessment published Sep 2008

Indicator Assessment Created 21 Jul 2008 Published 08 Sep 2008 Last modified 11 Sep 2012, 04:50 PM
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Update planned for November 2012

Key messages

  • The vast majority of glaciers in the European glacial regions are in retreat.
  • Since 1850, glaciers in the European Alps have lost approximately two thirds of their volume, with clear acceleration since the 1980s.
  • Glacier retreat is projected to continue. A 3oC increase in average summer air temperature could reduce the existing glacier cover of the European Alps by some 80 %. With continuing climate change nearly all the smaller glaciers and one third of the overall glacier area in Norway are projected to disappear by 2100.
  • Glacier retreat has serious consequences for river flow. It affects freshwater supply, river navigation, irrigation and power generation. It could cause natural hazards and damage to infrastructure.


Modelled remains of the glacier cover in the European Alps for an increase in average summer air temperature of 1 to 5 oC

Note: Modelled remains of the Alpine glacierisation (climatic accumulation area) according to an increase in summer air temperature of +1 to +5 °C. The total of 100% refers to the ice cover of the reference period (1971–90). The 100%-marks of the other lines refer to the fraction of glacierisation of the corresponding Alpine country. Reading example: A rise in summer air temperature of 3 °C would reduce the Alpine ice cover (red curve) to about 20% of the glacier cover of the reference period (1971–90). The corresponding glacier remains of Switzerland (blue, dashed line) amounts to about 30%, whereas in Austria (black, dashed line) only about 7% of the glacier cover of the reference period is left.

Data source:

Zemp, M.; Haeberli, W.; Hoelzle, M. and Paul, F., 2006. Alpine glaciers to disappear within decades? Geophysical Research Letters 33: L13504

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Cumulative specific net mass balance of glaciers from all European glaciated regions 1946-2006

Note: N/A

Data source:

Fluctuation of Glaciers Database (FoG), World Glacier Monitoring Service (, 2007

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Past trends

According to the high-quality data records of the WGMS, a general loss of glacier mass has occurred in nearly all the European glacier regions (Figure 1). Glacier retreat in Europe started after the maximum glacier extent of the so-called 'Little Ice Age' in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the Alps, glaciers lost one third of their surface area and one half of their volume between 1850 and the end of the 1970s. Since 1985 an acceleration in glacial retreat has been observed, which led to a loss of 25 % of the remaining ice by 2000 (Zemp et al., 2006). This was followed by a further loss of 5-10 % in the extraordinary hot and dry summer of 2003 (Zemp et al., 2005), resulting in a total loss of about two thirds of the 1850 ice mass.
The Norwegian coastal glaciers, which were expanding and gaining mass due to increased snowfall in winter up to the end of the 1990s, are also now retreating, as a result of less winter precipitation and more summer melting (Nesje et al., 2008; Andreassen et al., 2005).
Glaciers in Svalbard are experiencing mass loss at lower elevations, and the fronts of nearly all glaciers there are retreating (Haeberli et al., 2005, 2007; Nuth et al., 2007). Some ice caps in north-eastern Svalbard seem to be increasing in thickness at higher elevations (Bamber et al., 2004; Bevan et al., 2007). However, estimates for Svalbard as a whole show that the total balance is negative (Hagen et al., 2003), and there is a clear sign of accelerated melting, at least in western Svalbard (Kohler et al., 2007).
Very recent findings by the WGMS (UNEP, 2008) indicate a clearly increasing annual reduction of the global mean ice-thickness of glaciers since the turn of millennium (0.5 m) compared with the 1980-1999 period (0.3 m). Some of the most dramatic shrinking has been in Europe (Scandinavia, Alps, and Pyrenees).
The centennial retreat of European glaciers is attributed mainly to increased summer temperatures. However, changes in winter precipitation, the decreased glacier albedo due to the lack of summer snow-fall and various other feedback processes are altering the pattern on a regional and decadal scale. The recent strong warming has made disintegration and down-wasting increasingly dominant causes of glacier decline in the European Alps during the most recent past (Paul et al., 2004).


According to a recently published sensitivity study (Zemp et al., 2006), the European Alps could lose about 80 % of their average ice cover for the period 1971-1990 if summer air temperatures rose by 3 oC; a precipitation increase of 25 % for each 1 oC would be needed to offset the loss of cover. The modeled remains of Alpine glaciers as a consequence of warming are presented in Figure 2. Sugiyama et al. (2007) investigated the potential evolution of the Rhone Glacier, Switzerland, in the 21st century using a model which included more consideration of glacier flow dynamics. They found increasing mass loss as well as decreasing glacier cover, but at a gradually slower rate. However, neither modelling studies considered feedback processes such as the development of glacier lakes, which could accelerate glacier retreat dramatically.
Recent climate scenarios for Norway, based on model calculations by the British Headley Centre and the German Max Planck Institute which follow the SRES B2 emission-scenario, indicate a rise in summer temperature of 2.3 oC and an increase in winter precipitation of 16 % in the period 2070-2100 compared with 1961-1990. As a result, nearly all the smaller Norwegian glaciers are likely to disappear and overall glacier area as well as volume may be reduced by about one third by 2100 (Nesje et al., 2008).

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

  • 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

Context description

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:


No targets have been specified

Related policy documents

No related policy documents have been specified


Methodology for indicator calculation

Methodology for gap filling

Methodology references

No methodology references available.


Methodology uncertainty

Data sets uncertainty

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Generic metadata


Climate change Climate change (Primary topic)

climate change | soer2010 | thematic assessments | glaciers | understanding climate change
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, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel


EEA Management Plan

2008 0.0.0 (note: EEA internal system)


European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100