03 May 2024
 | 03 May 2024
Status: this preprint is open for discussion.

Reconstructed glacier area and volume changes in the European Alps since the Little Ice Age

Johannes Reinthaler and Frank Paul

Abstract. Glaciers in the European Alps have experienced drastic area and volume loss since the end of the Little Ice Age (LIA) around the year 1850. How large these losses were is only poorly known as, published estimates of area loss are mostly based on simple up-scaling and alpine-wide reconstructions of LIA glacier surfaces are lacking. For this study, we compiled all digitally available LIA glacier extents for the Alps and added missing outlines for glaciers >0.1 km2 by manual digitising. This was based on geomorphologic interpretation of moraines and trimlines on very high-resolution images in combination with historic topographic maps and modern glacier outlines. Glacier area changes are determined for all glaciers with LIA extents at a regional scale. Glacier surface reconstruction with a Geographic Information System (GIS) was applied to calculate (a) glacier volume changes for the entire region from the LIA until today and (b) total LIA glacier volume in combination with a reconstructed glacier bed. The glacier area shrunk by 2405 km2 (-57 %) from 4211 km2 at the LIA maximum to 1806 km2 in 2015 and volume was reduced from about 281 km3 around 1850 to 100 km3 (‑65 %) in 2015, roughly in line with previous estimates. In the mean, glacier surfaces lowered by -43.3 m until 2015 (-0.25 m a-1), which is three-times less than observed over the 2000 to 2015 period (-0.82 m a-1). Strongest volume losses occurred around 1600 m and at least 1832 glaciers melted away completely. Many glaciers have now only remnants of their former coverage left, which led to deglaciation of entire catchments. The new datasets should support a wide range of studies related to the effects of climate change in the Alps.

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Johannes Reinthaler and Frank Paul

Status: open (until 23 Jun 2024)

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  • CC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2024-989', Melaine Le Roy, 06 May 2024 reply
Johannes Reinthaler and Frank Paul
Johannes Reinthaler and Frank Paul


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Short summary
Since the end of the Little Ice Age (LIA) around 1850, glaciers in the European Alps have melted considerably. We collected LIA glacier extents, calculated changes using geoinformatics, and found a 57 % decrease in area (4211 km² to 1806 km²) and a 65 % decrease in volume (281 km³ to 100 km³) by 2015. The average glacier surface lowering was 43 m. After 2000, elevation change rates tripled. Over 1800 glaciers melted away completely, impacting entire regions.