Building resilience
to climate change
Moving towards
low carbon societies
Reducing Emissions
from Deforestation
and forest Degradation
New finance models
for the green economy

Understanding Glacier Melt : UNEP and WGMS report highlights global trends on glaciers and ice caps
21/ 01/ 2010

Understanding Glacier Melt : UNEP and WGMS report highlights global trends on glaciers and ice capsNairobi, 21 January 2010 - The last assessment on glacier melt by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) shows that the average annual melting rate of glaciers doubled after the turn of the millennium.
The report, 'Global Glacier Changes: Facts and Figures', was published by UNEP and WGMS in September 2008. It highlights global trends in glacier retreat and shows that record losses were posted in 2006 for a key network of reference sites.
The previous record loss in the year 1998 was already exceeded three times in the years 2003, 2004 and 2006, with the losses in 2004 and 2006 being almost twice as high as the previous 1998 record loss.
The global average annual mass loss of more than half a metre during the decade of 1996 to 2005 represents twice the ice loss of the previous decade (1986-95), and over four times the rate of the decade from 1976 to 1985. Early measurements indicate strong ice losses as early as the 1940s and 1950s, followed by a moderate ice loss between 1966 and 1985, and accelerating ice losses until present.
Overall, the 2008 report provided mounting evidence that climate change is triggering a shrinking and thinning of many glaciers worldwide, which may eventually put at risk water supplies for hundreds of millions of people.
When the report was released in 2008, UNEP and WGMS emphasized that data gaps exist in some vulnerable parts of the globe, undermining the ability to provide precise early warning for countries and populations at risk.
The two organizations said that while excellent data was available for large parts of the world including Europe and North America, the monitoring of glaciers and ice caps in Central Asia, the Tropics and the Polar Regions needed to be urgently stepped up.
"Given the urgency of climate change and the need for scientifically-based adaptation strategies, it is now essential to re-initiate interrupted long-term series in strategically important regions. It is equally urgent to strengthen the monitoring network in those regions which at the moment have sparse coverage and to include the latest technologies such as high-resolution remote sensing to complement the traditional field observations," said Peter Gilruth, Director of the Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA) of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Wilfried Haeberli, Director of the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) at the launch of the report.
Glaciers are a critical component of the earth' system and the current accelerated melting and retreat of glaciers have severe impacts on the environment and human well-being, including vegetation patterns, economic livelihoods, natural hazards, and the water and energy supply.
By looking at glaciers - or what is left of them - future generations will be able to discern clearly which climate scenario is being played out at the present time. The consequences of ice disappearance for landscape characteristics in high mountain areas will be felt at local as well as regional scales, while the changes in the water cycle will also affect continental-scale water supply and global-scale sea levels.
The internationally coordinated collection of information about glaciers began in 1894 and the efforts towards the compilation of a world glacier inventory have resulted in unprecedented data sets. For the second half of the 20th century, preliminary estimates of the global distribution of glaciers and ice caps covering some 685 000 km2 are available, including detailed information on about 100 000 glaciers, and digital outlines for about 62 000 glaciers.
The database on glacier fluctuations includes 36,240 length change observations from 1803 glaciers as far back as the late 19th century, as well as about 3,400 annual mass balance measurements from 226 glaciers covering the past six decades.
The overall shrinking of glaciers and ice caps since their maximum extents during the Little Ice Age is well correlated with the increase in global mean air temperature of about 0.75 °C since the mid 19th century, which is most likely human-induced for the most part, at least since the second half of the 20th century (IPCC 2007). On a scale of decades, glaciers in various regions have shown intermittent re-advances, possibly in response to precipitation changes (IPCC 2007).
The rapid environmental changes highlighted in the new report released today require that the international glacier monitoring efforts make use of the swiftly developing new technologies, such as remote sensing and geo-informatics, and relate them to the more traditional field observations, in order to better face the monitoring challenges of the 21st century.
Notes to Editors
The full 2008 report 'Global Glacier Changes: Facts and Figures' including pictures and other resources can be found at
The publication was prepared in a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS). It was reviewed by scientists from around the world with expertise in the research and monitoring of glaciers and ice caps.
World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS):
WGMS compiles, analyses, and publishes standardised information on the distribution and ongoing changes in the world's glaciers and ice caps. WGMS works under the auspices of ICSU (FAGS), IUGG (IACS), UNEP, UNESCO, and WMO and maintains a collaborative network of local investigators and national correspondents in all countries involved in glacier monitoring.
GRID-Europe is one of UNEP's major centres for data and information management, with a unique, "value-adding" mandate in the handling of global and regional environmental data, which in turn support the environment assessment and early warning activities of UNEP and its partners.
The potential impacts of climate change on glaciers were outlined in the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation) published in 2007.
UNEP's Climate Change Science Compendium, published in September 2009, also featured a section on Earth's Ice looking at the shrinking of glaciers and ice sheets around the globe:
For More Information Please Contact:
Wilfried Haeberli, Director, WGMS: +41.44.6355120, or
Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson and Head of Media, +41 795965737 or +254.733.632755, or

Further Resources
Global Glacier Changes: Full Report
World Glacier Monitioring Service (WGMS)
Global Glacier Changes: Facts and Figures
Time to Plug Gaps in the Global Glacier Monitoring Network