New preliminary glacier mass balance data

Occasionally, I will have a conversation with someone regarding climate change.  This is often with a coworker of my wife’s–she is an engineer, so she and her coworkers are generally quite intelligent people, but have zero background in any of the sciences that go with studying a changing climate.  Usually these conversations are completely amicable, and amount to simply an exchange of facts, with a few qualified speculations thrown in.

One individual, however, refuted the existence of a changing climate.  When presented with appropriate data, he stated that it was bunk (with no supporting data or reasons for his disregard of published data), and accused me of (and I quote) “drinking the kool-aid.”  I presume this means he doesn’t trust my climate change data because I work for the US Geological Survey, and in his mind we have some agenda which relies on convincing the public there’s a changing climate.  I should note that I was not proposing the causes of climate change, only the existence.

First of all, let me say that the USGS is a fact-finding organization only–we have no oversight or enforcement responsibilities, and therefore do not benefit at all whether or not climate change really exists.

Secondly, I’m personally offended when someone questions my scientific integrity.  I may not be the best or most brilliant scientist in the world, but damnit I’m honest.  That was the closest I’ve ever come to requesting that someone call me Dr. Kass, just to be, well frankly, a prick.

More to the point, however, I don’t understand how someone can simply reject data that does not agree with their personal, uninformed opinions.  I know it’s an old argument, but it amazes me every time.  I’m up for debating this if someone cares to present a rational case against climate change (in fact, I have had stimulating discussions like this in the past), but the moment you reject evidence in favour of…passion? religion? faith? denial? (I have no idea)…the conversation with me is over.

Given his actions, he is clearly an irrational person, and no amount of discussion, presentation, or debate will affect his viewpoint.  I SHOULD let it go, but this was probably over a year ago and it still bothers me.

Well, at least one thing I CAN do in this regard is to pass along public climate change data when I get it.  So here goes.

I received an email this morning from the Cryolist that I thought I’d share.  It contained a link to this year’s glacier mass balance data from the World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich, which shows how much mass loss (or gain, in a few cases) a series of approximately 100 glaciers experienced over the past year, and incorporates that data into the historical records.  All of the data I’m about to discuss is available through their website at the link above.

Mass balance data is reported in a bit of an odd unit – metres of water equivalent (m w.e.), which roughly can be described as the average thickness the glacier lost or gained.  There are a variety of ways this can be measured, but I won’t go into that here.

Below is an overview of their preliminary 2010/2011 data.  I took this table directly from their website.

Table 1: Overview on mass balance data 2010/11. Statistics are given for all reported glaciers (ALL) and for the available ‘reference’ glaciers with continuous long-term observation series (REF).
Mean annual mass balance (mm w.e.)
Minimum value (mm w.e.) -4153 -4153
Maximum value (mm w.e.) 1640 1210
Standard deviation (mm w.e.) 1103 976
Number of positive/reported balances 25/108 3/32

This is not a very pleasant set of numbers.  We’ve lost, on average, roughly a metre off the world’s glaciers in the past year.  A sobering chart, again from their website, is given below:

Glacial mass balance historical data.  Image source:

Glacial mass balance historical data. Image source:

Of course, these data only go back to 1980, and we know that there are long-period temperature cycles in the Earth that the temporal extent cannot show.  However, these are still scary numbers in the short term.  I would rather take my children to see glaciers rather than just show them pictures from a book.

I think it’s important we as a society keep up with these data as they are released.  No one dataset is definitive, or shows a long term view, but they are valuable nonetheless.  I will continue to post data such as these as they come across my desk, but if you want to get the same notifications I do, check out

Some optional further reading:

  • Braithwaite, R.J. 2002. Glacier mass balance: the first 50 years of international monitoring. Progr. Phys. Geogr., 26 (1), 76-95.
  • Cogley, J.G. and W.P. Adams. 1998. Mass balance of glaciers other than the ice sheets. J. Glaciol., 44 (147), 315-325.
  • Dyurgerov, M.B. 2002. Glacier mass balance and regime: data of measurements and analysis. Boulder, CO, University of Colorado, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. INSTAAR Occasional Paper 55.
  • Dyurgerov, M.B. and M.F. Meier. 2005. Glaciers and the changing Earth system: a 2004 snapshot. Boulder, CO, University of Colorado, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. INSTAAR Occasional Paper 58.
  • Kaser, G., Cogley, J.G., Dyurgerov, M.B., Meier, M.F. and A. Ohmura. 2006. Mass balance of glaciers and ice caps: consensus estimates for 1961-2004. Geophys. Res. Lett., 33 (19), L19501.
  • Meier, M.F., Dyurgerov, M.B., Rick, U.K., O’Neel, S., Pfeffer, W.T., Anderson, R.S., Anderson, S.P. and A.F. Glazovsky. 2007. Glaciers dominate eustatic sea-level rise in the 21st century. Science, 317 (5841): 1064-1067.
  • Ohmura, A. 2006. Changes in mountain glaciers and ice caps during the 20th century. Ann. Glaciol., 43, 361-368.
  • WGMS. 2008. Global Glacier Changes: facts and figures. Zemp, M., Roer, I., Kääb, A., Hoelzle, M., Paul, F. and W. Haeberli (eds.), UNEP, World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich, Switzerland: 88 pp.
  • WGMS. 2011. Glacier Mass Balance Bulletin No. 11 (2008-2009). Zemp, M., Nussbaumer, S.U., Gärtner-Roer, I., Hoelzle, M., Paul, F. and Haeberli, W. (eds.), ICSU (WDS) / IUGG (IACS) / UNEP / UNESCO / WMO, World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich, Switzerland: 102 pp.
  • WGMS. 2012. Fluctuations of Glaciers 2005-2010 (Vol. X): Zemp, M., Frey, H., Gärtner-Roer, I., Nussbaumer, S.U., Hoelzle, M., Paul, F. & W. Haeberli (eds.), ICSU (WDS)/ IUGG (IACS)/ UNEP/ UNESCO/ WMO, World Glacier Monitorings Service, Zurich, Switzerland. Based on database version doi: 10.5904/wgms-fog-2012-11.
  • Zemp, M., Hoelzle, M. and W. Haeberli. 2009. Six decades of glacier mass balance observations – a review of the worldwide monitoring network. Annals of Glaciology, 50A018.

–OK, rant over–


About faradaysheadache

Research Geophysicist with the US Geological Survey.
This entry was posted in Climate change, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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