Hydrology & Sea-level rise

The cryosphere is an important storage element in the hydrological cycle. Mass loss of glaciers can substantially affect the hydrological regime of mountain regions and changes in glacier melt are relevant for the world’s major drainage basins. Permafrost areas on the other hand can importantly delay runoff or act as long-term sources of water in arid areas.

At the global scale, glaciers are a significant contributor to sea-level rise and their evolution over the 21st century might have far-reaching consequences for coastal areas. We develop and apply different model approaches to assess the importance of glaciers and permafrost to local, regional and global hydrology. Our physically-based glacier modelling at the global scale offers a contribution to worldwide efforts to better estimate the magnitude of future sea-level rise due to glacier mass loss.


Modelling the climate change response of all glaciers globally

The ongoing and future retreat of glaciers around the globe is of major concern in light of direct implications for sea level, water resources, natural hazards and the human perception of mountains as a recreational environment. Although glaciers outside the two ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica contain less than 1% of all land ice, they are presently major contributors to sea-level rise. Glaciers react sensitively to changes in climate forcing and are expected to significantly recede over the next decades due to past and anticipated future atmospheric warming.

In this project, a new process-based model for calculating the 21st century mass changes of all glaciers on Earth outside the ice sheets is developed and applied for answering different research questions related to sea-level rise and global changes in hydrology. The Global Glacier Evolution Model (GloGEM) describes accumulation, melting and refreezing at the glacier surface and includes a module for calculating mass loss due to frontal ablation at marine-terminating glacier fronts. The transient changes in three-dimensional geometry, including glacier advance/retreat, are explicitly simulated for each of the roughly 200’000 glaciers around the globe. GloGEM also allows computing the changes in the hydrological regime over time for arbitrary drainage basins.


Webpage: www.climate-cryosphere.ch/activities/targeted/glaciermip 


Duration: 2013 -


Funded by: University of Fribourg, ETH Zürich 


Project lead/principal investigator (PI): M. Huss, University of Fribourg, ETH Zurich 


External collaboration with:

  • University of Alaska Fairbanks (Prof. Regine Hock)


Contact at University of Fribourg: matthias.huss@unifr.ch



Huss, M. and Hock, R. (2015). A new model for global glacier change and sea-level rise. Frontiers in Earth Science, 3:54, doi: 10.3389/feart.2015.00054.


Research aims/sciences questions:
(1) How much do glacier contribute to global sea-level rise over the 21st century?

(2) Developing novel approaches to compute the change in mass balance, retreat and runoff of all glaciers globally

(3) Intercomparison of existing global glacier models


Study area: All glaciers globally

Fig. 1: Projected glacier contribution to sea-level rise. 

Fig. 2: Changes in regional glacier volume and corresponding sea-level.

Unit of Geography - Chemin du Musée 4 - 1700 Fribourg - Tel +41 26 / 300 90 10 - Fax +41 26 / 300 9746
nicole.equey [at] unifr.ch - Swiss University