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A consensus estimate for the ice thickness distribution of all glaciers on Earth

Nature Geosciencevolume 12pages168173 (2019) | Download Citation


Knowledge of the ice thickness distribution of the world’s glaciers is a fundamental prerequisite for a range of studies. Projections of future glacier change, estimates of the available freshwater resources or assessments of potential sea-level rise all need glacier ice thickness to be accurately constrained. Previous estimates of global glacier volumes are mostly based on scaling relations between glacier area and volume, and only one study provides global-scale information on the ice thickness distribution of individual glaciers. Here we use an ensemble of up to five models to provide a consensus estimate for the ice thickness distribution of all the about 215,000 glaciers outside the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The models use principles of ice flow dynamics to invert for ice thickness from surface characteristics. We find a total volume of 158 ± 41 × 103 km3, which is equivalent to 0.32 ± 0.08 m of sea-level change when the fraction of ice located below present-day sea level (roughly 15%) is subtracted. Our results indicate that High Mountain Asia hosts about 27% less glacier ice than previously suggested, and imply that the timing by which the region is expected to lose half of its present-day glacier area has to be moved forward by about one decade.

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Code availability

The codes used to generate individual results are available through the contact information from the original publications. Requests for further materials should be directed to D.F.

Data availability

The ice thickness distribution of all about 215,000 glaciers, as estimated with the individual models and the composite solution, is available at

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The contribution from J.J.F. was supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG grant no. FU1032/1-1), with numerical simulations facilitated by the high-performance computing centre at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (Regionales Rechenzentrum Erlangen (RRZE)). The support form R. Ramsankaran’s research team at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay is acknowledged. We thank the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences (IACS), co-chairs L. M. Andreassen and H. Li, and the members of the IACS Working Group on Glacier Ice Thickness Estimation for the support during the work. The analyses were performed in the frame of the Working Group’s Global Glacier Thickness Initiative (G2TI).

Author information


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

    • Daniel Farinotti
    • , Matthias Huss
    •  & Johannes Landmann
  2. Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Birmensdorf, Switzerland

    • Daniel Farinotti
    •  & Johannes Landmann
  3. Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland

    • Matthias Huss
    •  & Horst Machguth
  4. Institute of Geography, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), Erlangen, Germany

    • Johannes J. Fürst
  5. Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Horst Machguth
  6. Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences, University of Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria

    • Fabien Maussion
  7. Interdisciplinary Programme in Climate Studies, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Mumbai, India

    • Ankur Pandit
  8. Hydro-Remote Sensing Applications (H-RSA) Group, Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Mumbai, India

    • Ankur Pandit


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D.F. conceived the study, performed the analyses of the results and drafted the manuscript, to which all the authors contributed. M.H., J.L. and D.F. prepared the necessary input data. M.H., J.J.F., H.M., F.M. and A.P. performed the calculations with individual models. M.H. and D.F. performed the GloGEM and Antarctic ice-discharge calculations, respectively.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel Farinotti.

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