Indicator Assessment


Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-95-en
  Also known as: CLIM 007
Created 29 Nov 2016 Published 20 Dec 2016 Last modified 20 Dec 2016
11 min read
  • The vast majority of glaciers in the European glacial regions are in retreat. Glaciers in the European Alps have lost approximately half of their volume since 1900, with clear acceleration since the 1980s.
  • Glacier retreat is expected to continue in the future. It has been estimated that the volume of European glaciers will decline between 22 and 84 % compared with the current situation by 2100 under a moderate greenhouse gas forcing scenario, and between 38 and 89 % under a high forcing scenario.
  • Glacier retreat contributed to global sea level rise by about 0.8 mm per year in 2003–2009. 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.

Cumulative specific net mass balance of European glaciers

Data sources:

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


Past trends

A general loss of glacier mass since the beginning of the measurements has occurred in all European glacier regions, except some glaciers in Norway (Figure 1). The Alps have lost roughly 50 % of their ice mass since 1900 [i]. Norwegian coastal glaciers were expanding and gaining mass up to the end of the 1990s owing 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, Norway, 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 snowfall and various other feedback processes, such as the increasing debris cover on the glacier, can influence the behaviour of glaciers, in particular on regional and decadal scales.

The melting of glaciers is contributing significantly to global sea level rise. For the period 2003–2009, the global contribution was 0.71 ± 0.08 mm per year, accounting for 29 ± 13 % of the observed sea level rise [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 % relative to their extent in 2006 under a moderate greenhouse gas forcing scenario (RCP4.5) and between 38 and 89 % under a high forcing scenario (RCP8.5) (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). Similar results were achieved in other studies [vi]. 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 [vii].

[i] Michael Zemp et al., ‘Glacier Fluctuations in the European Alps, 1850-2000: An Overview and a Spatiotemporal Analysis of Available Data’, inDarkening Peaks: Glacier Retreat, Science, and Society, ed. Benjamin S. Orlove, Ellen Wiegandt, and Brian H. Luckman (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 152–67; Michael Zemp et al., ‘Historically Unprecedented Global Glacier Decline in the Early 21st Century’,Journal of Glaciology 61, no. 228 (1 September 2015): 745–62, doi:10.3189/2015JoG15J017; M. Huss, ‘Extrapolating Glacier Mass Balance to the Mountain-Range Scale: The European Alps 1900–2100’,The Cryosphere 6, no. 4 (6 July 2012): 713–27, doi:10.5194/tc-6-713-2012.

[ii] 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; Markus Engelhardt, Thomas V. Schuler, and Liss M. Andreassen, ‘Glacier Mass Balance of Norway 1961–2010 Calculated by a Temperature-Index Model’,Annals of Glaciology 54, no. 63 (1 July 2013): 32–40, doi:10.3189/2013AoG63A245; I. Hanssen-Bauer et al., eds.,Klima I Norge 2100. Kunnskapsgrunnlag for Klimatilpasning Oppdatert I 2015 (Climate in Norway 2100. Knowledge Basis for Climate Change Adaptation Updated in 2015) [in Norwegian], NCCS Report, 2/2015 (Norsk klimaservicesenter (NKSS), 2015),

[iii] 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 (1 October 2007): 117–22, doi:10.3189/172756407782871477; C. Lang, X. Fettweis, and M. Erpicum, ‘Stable Climate and Surface Mass Balance in Svalbard over 1979-2013 despite the Arctic Warming’,The Cryosphere 9, no. 1 (8 January 2015): 83–101, doi:10.5194/tc-9-83-2015.

[iv] A. S. Gardner et al., ‘A Reconciled Estimate of Glacier Contributions to Sea Level Rise: 2003 to 2009’,Science 340, no. 6134 (17 May 2013): 852–57, doi:10.1126/science.1234532; D. G. Vaughan et al., ‘Observations: Cryosphere’, inClimate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. T. F. Stocker et al. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 317–82,

[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 42, no. 1–2 (January 2014): 37–58, doi:10.1007/s00382-013-1719-7.

[vi] B. Marzeion, A. H. Jarosch, and M. Hofer, ‘Past and Future Sea-Level Change from the Surface Mass Balance of Glaciers’,The Cryosphere 6, no. 6 (12 November 2012): 1295–1322, doi:10.5194/tc-6-1295-2012; Matthias Huss and Regine Hock, ‘A New Model for Global Glacier Change and Sea-Level Rise’,Frontiers in Earth Science 3 (30 September 2015): 54, doi:10.3389/feart.2015.00054.

[vii] Nesje et al., ‘Norwegian Mountain Glaciers in the Past, Present and Future’.

Supporting information

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 (EC) presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package. This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU Adaptation Strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe.

One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which will be achieved by bridging the knowledge gap and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT has been developed jointly by the EC and the EEA to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies.

Further objectives include Promoting adaptation in key vulnerablesectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies and Promoting action by Member States. Most EU Member States have already adopted national adaptation strategies and many have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation. The EC also supports adaptation in cities through the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy initiative.

In September 2016, the EC presented an indicative roadmap for the evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy by 2018.

In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7th EU Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources.’ Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.


No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • Climate-ADAPT: Adaptation in EU policy sectors
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: Country profiles
    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 in the future. This web portal 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 enhances 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



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. Improved technology allows for more detailed observations and observations of a higher resolution. High-quality long-term data are also available on glaciers throughout Europe.

Continuous efforts are being made to improve knowledge of the cryosphere. Scenarios for the future development of key components of the cryosphere have recently become available from the CMIP5 project, which has provided climate change projections for the IPCC AR5. Owing to their economic importance, considerable efforts have also been devoted to improving real-time monitoring of snow cover and sea ice.

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 007
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled every 4 years
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage



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