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World Glacier Monitoring Service
Scientific Programme

Worldwide collection of information about ongoing glacier changes was initiated in 1894 with the foundation of the International Glacier Commission at the 6th International Geological Congress in Zurich, Switzerland. It was hoped that long-term glacier observations would give insight into processes of climatic change such as the formation of ice ages. Since then, the goals of international glacier monitoring have evolved and multiplied.

Since this beginning of internationally coordinated systematic observations on glacier variations in 1894, a valuable and increasingly important data basis on glacier changes has been built up. In 1986 the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) started to maintain and continue the collection of information on ongoing glacier changes, when the two former ICSI services PSFG (Permanent Service on Fluctuations of Glaciers) and TTS/WGI (Temporal Technical Secretary/World Glacier Inventory) were combined.

Today, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) collects standardised observations on changes in mass, volume, area and length of glaciers with time (glacier fluctuations), as well as statistical information on the distribution of perennial surface ice in space (glacier inventories). Such glacier fluctuation and inventory data are high priority key variables in climate system monitoring; they form a basis for hydrological modelling with respect to possible effects of atmospheric warming, and provide fundamental information in glaciology, glacial geomorphology and quaternary geology. The highest information density is found for the Alps and Scandinavia, where long and uninterrupted records are available.

As a contribution to the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS/GTOS) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and to the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the WGMS of the Commission on Cryospheric Sciences of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (CCS/IUGG) and the Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical Data Analysis Services (FAGS/ICSU) today collects and publishes worldwide standardized glacier data. At present, the WGMS gets important financial and logistic support from the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.

The tasks of the WGMS are:

  • To collect and publish standardized data on glacier fluctuations at 5-yearly intervals;
  • To manage and upgrade the existing inventory of glaciers and ice caps;
  • To prepare a bulletin reporting mass balance results of selected reference glaciers and ice caps at 2-yearly intervals;
  • To stimulate satellite observations of remote glaciers and ice caps in order to reach global coverage; and
  • To periodically assess ongoing changes.
The WGMS also runs the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G) as part of GTOS/GCOS. This network follows the 5-level GHOST-strategy, integrating in-situ measurements, remote sensing and numerical modelling.