Monitoring of the Cryosphere (Glacier&Permafrost)

Systematic long-term monitoring of the so called essential climate variables (ECVs) such as the ones constituting the alpine cryosphere form the indispensable backbone of any environmental change study. Different variables of the alpine cryosphere such as glacier mass balance or permafrost ground temperatures are important indicators of climate change but also important to answer questions related to sea level rise, regional water cycles or natural hazards.

We are strongly involved in several international long-term monitoring programs on a national level such as Glacier Monitoring of Switzerland (GLAMOS) and Permafrost Monitoring of Switzerland (PERMOS) but also related to international monitoring within the framework of the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G, coordinated by the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and the Global Land Ice Measurement from Space (GLIMS)) and Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost GTN-P).

We follow the international recommended multi-level strategy for monitoring mountain glaciers and permafrost combining in-situ measurements with remote sensing and numerical modelling to bridge the gap between detailed local process-oriented studies and global coverage.


PERMOS (Permafrost Monitoring of Switzerland)

The Swiss Permafrost Monitoring Network (PERMOS) systematically documents the state and changes of mountain permafrost in the Swiss Alps. PERMOS was initiated in the 1990ies and is operational since the year 2000. The Geography Institute at the University of Fribourg is one of six PERMOS partner intuitions contributing to the monitoring activities and host institution of the PERMOS Office.



Duration: since 2000

Funded by: The PERMOS network receives substantial financial support from the Federal Institute for Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss through GCOS Switzerland, the Federal Office for the Environment FOEN and the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT).

Responsible for the PERMOS Office: Prof. Reynald Delaloye 

Partner(s): Universities of Lausanne and Zurich, ETH Zurich, University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland SUPSI, and the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF

Collaborators:  For the PERMOS Office: Reynald Delaloye, Cécile Pellet and Jeannette Noetzli (based at SLF in Davos); Luc Braillard, Christan Hauck, Christin Hilbich, Martin Hoelzle, Mario Kummert, Coline Mollaret, David Sciboz; members of the PERMOS Scientific and Steering Committees

Contact at University of Fribourg: reynald.delaloye[at], cecile.pellet[at]


PERMOS 2013. Permafrost in Switzerland 2008/2009 and 2009/2010. Noetzli, J. (ed.), Glaciological Report (Permafrost) No. 10/11 of the Cryospheric Commission of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, 80 pp. PDF

Permafrost monitoring variables:

PERMOS includes three types of observations which are taken at sites on different landforms in varying topographic settings: (1) ground temperatures measured in boreholes and at the surface near to the drill site, (2) changes in subsurface ice and unfrozen water content at the drill sites by geo-electrical surveys, and (3) velocities of permafrost creep determined by geodetic surveys and photogrammetry. In addition, fast mass movements from permafrost areas (e.g., rock fall) are documented. More detailed information on the PERMOS monitoring strategy and the measured data can be found on


GLAMOS (Glacier Monitoring of Switzerland)

Glaciers are excellent indicators of climate change. Fluctuations in glacier length and changes in volume and mass represent key parameters in environmental monitoring. The project Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland (GLAMOS) aims at maintaining and evaluating the exceptional long-term data series available for numerous glaciers in the Swiss Alps. Glacier monitoring in Switzerland looks back onto a long tradition and is operational since the late 19th century. GLAMOS collects and compiles representative and relevant glaciological data in relation to climate variations and delivers the results to international data centres and a broader public.

GLAMOS is a joint effort of the Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW) at ETH Zurich and the Universities of Fribourg and Zurich. The following categories of data are acquired and evaluated at a seasonal to multi-annual basis:

(a)    Glacier length change for about 100 glaciers

(b)   Seasonal surface mass balance for about 15 glaciers

(c)    Ice volume changes at 5-10-year intervals for about 40 glaciers

(d)   Surface ice flow speed

(e)   Repeated glacier inventories

(f)     Firn and ice temperatures

Results are published at a regularly in the Glaciological Reports (2-year intervals) and communicated to the public via articles in “Die Alpen” and media releases.


Duration: 2016-2020

Funded by: Federal Office for the Environment, MeteoSchweiz (GCOS Schweiz), Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) 

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

Partner(s): University of Zurich, ETH Zurich

Collaborators: Martin Hölzle

External collaboration with:

  • ETH Zurich (Prof. Martin Funk, Dr. Andreas Bauder)
  • University of Zurich (Prof. Andreas Vieli, Dr. Andreas Linsbauer)

Contact at University of Fribourg:


"The Swiss Glaciers", Reports of the Glaciological Commission of the Swiss Academy of Science (SAS) published by the Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW) of ETH Zürich, No. 1-134, 1881-2016.


Research aims/sciences questions:
(1) Long-term response of Swiss glaciers to climate change

(2) Monitoring of glacier length and mass change

(3) Monitoring of englacial temperature

(4) Dissemination of results and collaboration with international data centers


Study area: Glacier de la Plaine Morte (VS), Findelengletscher (VS), St. Annafirn (UR), Vadret dal Murtel (GR), Pizolgletscher (SG), Glacier du Tsanfleuron (VS), Colle Gnifetti (VS)


Exemplary results:

Fig. 1: Cumulative length change of four Swiss glaciers since 1880.

Fig. 1: Annual mass balance of four selected Swiss glaciers since 1999.


WGMS (World Glacier Monitoring Service)

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 glacier changes, when the two former ICSI services PSFG (Permanent Service on Fluctuations of Glaciers) and TTS/WGI (Temporal Technical Secretariat/World Glacier Inventory) were combined.

Today, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) collects standardized 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.

WGMS office is located at the University of Zurich and the University of Fribourg is an associated partner.

Results are published regularly in different reports, which can be found on the official WGMS Website.


Duration: not limited

Funded by: MeteoSchweiz (GCOS Schweiz)

Project lead at University of Fribourg (PI): M. Hoelzle, University of Fribourg

Partner(s): University of Zurich (M. Zemp, Director)

Collaborators: Matthias Huss (National Correspondent for Switzerland)

Contact at University of Fribourg: matthias.huss[at] / martin.hoelzle[at]



Location of the 3735 glaciers for which data is available from the WGMS. This overview includes 151 glaciers with reported mass balance data for the observation periods 2011/12 and 2012/13, and 40 ‘reference‘ glaciers with well-documented and independently calibrated, long-term mass balance programmes based on the glaciological method (source: WGMS 2015).


New monitoring techniques for understanding the response of very small glaciers to climate change

Alpine glacier research has traditionally focussed on medium- to large-sized valley glaciers. Very small glaciers (VSGs, here defined as being smaller than 0.5km2) have until now received little attention. Empirical knowledge is sparse and based mainly on studies focussing on very small cirque glaciers in southern Europe. However, VSGs are omnipresent in most mountain ranges and typically account for approximately 80% of the total number of glaciers worldwide. They exist either where mountain peaks are slightly higher than the climatic equilibrium line altitude (ELA), or at far lower elevations where local topographic conditions enhance snow accumulation and/or reduce ice ablation. Although the total area and volume of VSGs are relatively small compared to medium- to large-sized glaciers, they remain to be relevant components of the high-mountain cryosphere. For example, they impact the hydrological regime of poorly glacierized drainage basins, affect landscape formation, provide vital remnants of snow and ice for alpine winter tourism resorts, can trigger natural hazards, and can act as long-term climate proxies. VSGs even notably contribute to current sea level rise due to their vast number. Thus, our understanding about the dynamics and sensitivity of VSGs is important but not yet complete. This terminated project aimed to close this knowledge gap for the Swiss Alps.

Duration: 2012-2016

Funded by: Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), grant 200021_137586

Project lead/principal investigator (PI): M. Fischer, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg 

Collaborators: Mauro Fischer (PhD student), Matthias Huss (PostDoc), Martin Hoelzle (Prof.) 

External collaboration with: Institute of Earth System Dynamics, University of Lausanne (PhD student Jean-Baptiste Bosson)

Contact at University of Fribourg: mauro.fischer[at], matthias.huss[at], martin.hoelzle[at]




[5] FISCHER, M., HUSS, M., KUMMERT, M., & HOELZLE, M., 2016: Application and validation of long-range terrestrial laser scanning to monitor the mass balance of very small glaciers in the Swiss Alps. The Cryosphere, 10, 1279-1295, doi:10.5194/tc-10-1279-2016.

(Corresponding discussion paper: The Cryosphere Discuss.doi:10.5194/tc-2016-46)

[4] CAPT, M., BOSSON, J.-B., FISCHER, M., MICHELETTI, N., & LAMBIEL, C., 2016: Decadal evolution of a very small heavily debris-covered glacier in an Alpine permafrost environment. Journal of Glaciologydoi: 10.1017/jog.2016.56.

[3] HUSS, M., & FISCHER, M.2016: Sensitivity of very small glaciers in the Swiss Alps to future climate change. Frontiers in Earth Science., 4, 34,  doi:10.3389/feart.2016.00034.

[2] FISCHER, M., HUSS, M., & HOELZLE, M., 2015: Surface elevation and mass changes of all Swiss glaciers 1980–2010. The Cryosphere, 9, 525-540, doi:10.5194/tc-9-525-2015.

(Corresponding discussion paper: The Cryosphere Discuss., 8, 4581-4617, doi:10.5194/tcd-8-4581-2014)

 [1] FISCHER, M., HUSS, M., BARBOUX, C., & HOELZLE, M., 2014: The new Swiss Glacier Inventory SGI2010: Relevance of using high-resolution source data in areas dominated by very small glaciers. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, 46(4),  933-945, doi: 10.1657/1938-4246-46.4.933.

Research aims/sciences questions:
(1) What is the current state of VSGs in the Swiss Alps and how did they react to observed atmospheric warming over the past decades?
(2) What is the sensitivity of VSGs in Switzerland to future changes in the climatic forcing and how long can they be expected to survive?
(3) What is the potential and what are the shortcomings of applying repeated terrestrial laser scanning surveys to derive annual surface elevation and geodetic mass changes of very small alpine glaciers?

Methods/methodology of the project: An integrated study approach was applied, including in-situ measurements on selected study glaciers (direct glaciological and TLS-derived geodetic mass balance, ice thickness distribution, surface velocity and temperature regime), remote sensing data to assess three-dimensional glacier changes over the past decades, and modelling to estimate the future glacier evolution at the mountain range scale.

Study area: Swiss Alps

Please refer to the publications listed above for results and findings of this project. 

SOMOMOUNT (Soil moisture monitoring in mountain areas)

TEMPS (The evolution of mountain permafrost in Switzerland)

Improvement of geophysical monitoring routines for permafrost research

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