August 1, 2018

Alpine Glacier-BAMS State of the Climate 2017

Posted by Mauri Pelto

Global alpine glacier annual mass balance record of reference glaciers submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, with 2017 continuing the trend of significant negative mass balance. 

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society: State of the Climate 2017 has been published.  Since 2008 I have written the chapter on alpine glaciers.

The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS)record of mass balance and terminus behavior (WGMS 2017) provides a global index for alpine glacier behavior. Glacier mass balance is the difference between accumulation and ablation, reported here in mm of water equivalence. Mean annual glacier mass balance in 2016 was −847 mm for the 37 long-term reference glaciers and −761 mm for all 140 monitored glaciers. Of the reporting reference glaciers, only one had a positive mass balance. Preliminary data reported to the WGMS in 2017 from Austria, Canada, China, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, and United States indicate that 2017 will be the 38th consecutive year of negative annual balances with a mean loss of −1036 mm for 29 reporting reference glaciers, with three glacier reporting a positive mass balance (

The ongoing global glacier retreat is currently affecting human society by raising sea levels, changing seasonal stream runoff, and increasing geohazards (Huss et al. 2017a). Huss and Hock (2018) indicate that approximately half of 56 glaciated watersheds globally have already passed peak glacier runoff. Rounce et al. (2017) identify the widespread expansion of glacier lakes due to retreat in Nepal from 2000 to 2015, which pose a glacier lake outburst flood hazard. Glacier retreat is a reflection of strongly negative mass balances over the last 30 years (Zemp et al. 2015). Marzeion et al. (2014) indicate that most of the recent mass loss, 1991–2010, is due to anthropogenic forcing.

The cumulative mass balance loss from 1980–2016 is −19.9 m, the equivalent of cutting a 22-m thick slice off the top of the average glacier .  The trend is remarkably consistent from region to region (WGMS 2017). WGMS mass balance based on 41 reference glaciers with a minimum of 30 years of record is not appreciably different from that of all glaciers at −19.1 m. The decadal mean annual mass balance was −228 mm in the 1980s, −443 mm in the 1990s, −676 mm for 2000s, and –896 mm for 2010–17 (WGMS 2017). The declining mass balance trend during a period of retreat indicates alpine glaciers are not approaching equilibrium and retreat will continue to be the dominant terminus response.

Exceptional glacier melt was noted across the European Alps, leading to high snowlines and contributing to large negative mass balance of glaciers on this continent (Swiss Academy of Sciences 2017). In the European Alps, annual mass balance has been reported for nine reference glaciers from Austria, France, Italy, and Switzerland. All had negative annual balances: exceeding −1000 m with a mean of −1664 mm. This continues the pattern of substantial negative balances in the Alps that continue to lead to terminus retreat. In 2016, in Switzerland 94 glaciers were observed: 82 retreated, 7 were stable, and 5 advanced (Huss et al. 2017b). In 2016, Austria observed 90 glaciers: 87 retreated, 2 were stable, and 1 advanced; the average retreat rate was 14 m (Fischer 2017).

In Norway and Svalbard, terminus fluctuation data from 36 glaciers with ongoing assessment, indicates that in 2016 32 retreated, 3 advanced, and 1 was stable. The average terminus change was −12.5 m (Kjøllmoen, 2017). Mass balance surveys with completed results are available for nine glaciers; seven of the nine had negative mass balances with an average loss of −80 mm w.e.

In western North America data have been submitted from eight reference glaciers in Alaska and Washington in the United States, and British Columbia in Canada. Seven of the eight glaciers reported negative mass balances with a mean loss of −1020 mm. Winter and spring 2017 had above-average snowfall, while ablation conditions were above average. In Alaska mass losses from 2002 to 2014 have been −52 ± 4 gigatons yr−1, as large as any alpine region in the world (Wahr et al. 2016).

In the high mountains of central Asia four glaciers reported data from China, Kazakhstan, and Nepal. All four were negative, with a mean of −674 mm. This is a continuation of regional mass losses, such as reported by King et al. (2017) who found for 2000–15 the mean annual mass balance of 32 glaciers in the Mount Everest region was −520 ± 220mm.


Landsat image from 8/19/2017 illustrating the snowline on Mont Blanc glaciers with one month left in the melt season (M=Mer de Glace, A=Argentière, S=Saleina, L=Le Tour, T=Trient)