The scientific study of glaciers is far from new. Beginning in 1894, the International Glacier Commission began central compilation of data from around the world about these complex geological features (WGMS 2016). Scientists collected glacier data before this, however, with some of the earliest quantitative measurements being 1705 in Russia, 1720 in Argentina, and 1736 in the United States (WGMS 2018).
Today, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) continues this work of coordinating and collecting international data about glaciers, among several tasks of the group. One such project of WGMS is the Fluctuations of Glaciers Database, a dataset of 11 massive tables used to track dozens of variables for thousands of glaciers related to glacier length, area, mass, elevation, and more.
Among these variables, glacier front position might be the most accessible to a layperson: where is the front of the glacier, as if viewed from above? Has it advanced or retreated since the last time it was measured, and by how much? Glaciers do fluctuate, sometimes with the front advancing over years, and then suddenly retreating. Sometimes, a glacier will retreat and advance repeatedly over time. The vast majority, though, have retreated sharply. These fluctuations tell scientists about small and large changes in the climate. Through the WGMS Fluctuations of Glaciers Browser online, anyone with access to an Internet-connected computer can find a glacier and view a chart of the change over time in the position of the glacier front.
The following tables list the nearly 2,500 glaciers for which WGMS has front position data, sorting them into four categories to answer the question: Which glaciers have had net retreat of glacier front since their first measurements, which have had net advance, and which glaciers have a front position of about the same as their first measurement, within +/- 5 meters? A fourth category holds glaciers for which there is insufficient data to determine if net change is outside of this 5-meter threshold, or for glaciers which have had no successful observations because of snow cover. Each glacier in these tables has the glacier name, the political unit or country of the glacier location, the unique numerical identifier from the WGMS, and the most recent successful observation of the glacier front position (meaning the glacier was not covered in snow). In the case of glaciers with no successful observations, the most recent attempted observation is listed instead.
The placement of a glacier on one list or another does not indicate whether it is currently retreating or advancing. Therefore, a glacier may be on the “net advance” list, but in actuality show rapid retreat from an even higher, previous level. Just because a glacier is on the “net zero change” list does not mean it has had no change whatsoever. It may have advanced and then retreated to a level of about the same as its first observation. In the case of glaciers with the most recent measurement being far in the past, researchers may have stopped collecting data for a number of reasons, including perhaps the disappearance of the glacier, or difficult access to glaciers. Major funding is needed for long-term networks of research that can be used to assess glaciers and mitigate this change (Salzmann et al. 2014). What these tables show is the overwhelming number of glaciers with front positions below their first observation, and to put names in the public eye of these thousands of glaciers. Using these tables in combination with the Fluctuations of Glaciers Browser, one may see the details of these declines.
In the current global climate crisis, there is an undeniable trend in the retreat of glaciers, and this retreat has human activity as a cause (Marzeion et al. 2014; Zemp et al. 2015). A small group of individual scientists has executed disinformation campaigns about climate change, sowing doubt about scientific information that is already settled, with some of these same individuals executing similar campaigns denying the link between smoking and lung cancer, among other questions science settled long ago (Oreskes and Conway 2011). In bringing the public into concert with scientific fact, it is important to recognize the gap is not due to simple individual ignorance or stubbornness, but instead due to misleading campaigns which protect the capital interests of industry over individual and global health and safety. Thankfully, these individuals abusing the scientific method against fact are greatly outnumbered by the real experts doing truthful, accurate science.
These are the facts. These are the names of the glaciers. These data are the result of work by the entire glaciological community of scientists over hundreds of years. Let us bear witness to the massive change of the earth, and carry the witnessing forward into equally massive action.
Marzeion, Ben, J. Graham Cogley, Kristin Richter, and David Parkes. 2014. “Attribution of Global Glacier Mass Loss to Anthropogenic and Natural Causes.” Science 345 (6199): 919–921.
Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2011. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Salzmann, Nadine, Christian Huggel, Mario Rohrer, and Markus Stoffel. 2014. “Data and Knowledge Gaps in Glacier, Snow and Related Runoff Research–A Climate Change Adaptation Perspective.” Journal of Hydrology 518: 225–234.
WGMS. 2016. “About WGMS — World Glacier Monitoring Service.” World Glacier Monitoring Service. May 25, 2016. https://wgms.ch/about_wgms/.
WGMS. 2018. Fluctuations of Glaciers Database. World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich, Switzerland. DOI:10.5904/wgms-fog-2018-06. Online access: http://dx.doi.org/10.5904/wgms-fog-2018-06
Zemp, Michael, Holger Frey, Isabelle Garnert-Roer, Samuel U. Nussbaumer, Martin Hoelzle, Frank Paul, Wilfried Haeberli, Florian Denzinger, Brian Anderson, and Samjwal Bajracharya. 2015. “Historically Unprecedented Global Glacier Decline in the Early 21st Century.” Journal of Glaciology.