Global-scale hydrological response to future glacier mass loss

  • Nature Climate Changevolume 8pages135140 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41558-017-0049-x
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Worldwide glacier retreat and associated future runoff changes raise major concerns over the sustainability of global water resources1,2,3,4, but global-scale assessments of glacier decline and the resulting hydrological consequences are scarce5,6. Here we compute global glacier runoff changes for 56 large-scale glacierized drainage basins to 2100 and analyse the glacial impact on streamflow. In roughly half of the investigated basins, the modelled annual glacier runoff continues to rise until a maximum (‘peak water’) is reached, beyond which runoff steadily declines. In the remaining basins, this tipping point has already been passed. Peak water occurs later in basins with larger glaciers and higher ice-cover fractions. Typically, future glacier runoff increases in early summer but decreases in late summer. Although most of the 56 basins have less than 2% ice coverage, by 2100 one-third of them might experience runoff decreases greater than 10% due to glacier mass loss in at least one month of the melt season, with the largest reductions in central Asia and the Andes. We conclude that, even in large-scale basins with minimal ice-cover fraction, the downstream hydrological effects of continued glacier wastage can be substantial, but the magnitudes vary greatly among basins and throughout the melt season.

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We thank the Randolph Glacier Inventory consortium for providing global glacier inventory data, the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts for the ERA-interim Reanalysis and the GRDC for discharge data and drainage-basin outlines. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 2) for producing and making available their model output. R.H acknowledges funding from grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NNX17AB27G and NNX11AO23G). A. Aschwanden, D. Farinotti, A. Johnsson, D. Rounce and M. Truffer commented on a previous version of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW), ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Matthias Huss
  2. Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland

    • Matthias Huss
  3. Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, USA

    • Regine Hock
  4. Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

    • Regine Hock


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M.H. gathered and prepared the data, performed all the calculations and made the figures. He developed the model and modelling procedure with input from R.H. M.H. and R.H. contributed to the development of the analyses and figures and the discussion of results, and shared the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthias Huss.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1–9 and Supplementary Tables 1–6 and Supplementary References

  2. Supplementary Data

    16 Supplementary Data Files