Cryospheric changes in the central Andes of Chile (33° S) – an integrative remote sensing approach

Joint project between the Universities of Fribourg, Zurich, and Católica de Chile (Santiago), data from German Aerospace Centre (DLR), ongoing.

Research summary

Loss of glacier ice is recognized as the largest contributor to the present sea-level rise, greatly affects available water resources for consumption and irrigation especially in dry areas, and may change local hazard situations. Glacier mass balance is a direct and an immediate response to atmospheric conditions, and has been recognized as an essential variable of climate system monitoring. Data of glacier mass balances are stored at, and made available through the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS). However, these data are unevenly distributed around the globe, and very few information is available e.g. for the Andes. On the other hand, glacier information based on historical information (aerial photographs, maps) exist for certain Andean regions and can be compared with recent glacier behaviour and distribution, spanning a relatively long observation period to bear a full climatological signal. However, the sample of suitable glaciers is small and their regional representativeness needs to be assessed. Furthermore, the reliability of the individual time series can only be guaranteed if they are compared with a set of neighbouring glaciers.

TanDEM-X data are considered to be of unique value to assess glacier changes in the study region. In this project, we apply TanDEM-X data to calculate geodetic mass balances, and to investigate the representativeness of selected well-investigated glaciers (e.g., Loma Larga glacier in the Maipo valley of the central Andes of Chile) on a regional scale. In a second step, other glaciers such as Nieves Negras (Maipo valley) or Juncal Norte (Juncal valley) will be included in the analysis.

Promoting Sustainable Mountain Development for Global Change (SMD4GC)

Project funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC/DEZA), ongoing.

Project summary

Mountain regions are key contexts for sustainable global development because (1) mountains provide critical and indispensable goods and services to a significant proportion of humankind; and (2) mountains are among the most disadvantaged regions in a global perspective: they are among the regions with the highest poverty rates, and among those most vulnerable to global (climate) change and related risks, which exacerbates already existing challenges and increases the pressure on mountain people and resources. With the SMD4GC programme, support to sustainable mountain development (SMD) is provided to increase the resilience of the mountain population, which is increasingly vulnerable due to the ongoing global changes.

The overall goal of SMD4GC is to essentially contribute to SMD under uncertain changes in climatic, environmental and socio-economic conditions, focusing on poverty and risk reduction. The objectives are to launch (policy instruments for SMD at different levels by local, national and international stakeholders and decision makers, and to implement knowledge-based SMD activities. These objectives will be pursued by generating the following key outputs:
        - Raised awareness on SMD issues
        - Increased promotion of and support to SMD activities
        - Enhanced capacities for SMD knowledge generation
        - Improved access to SMD knowledge and know-how
        - Increased stakeholder capacity
        - Application of knowledge and know-how in pilot studies

Read more: Why mountains matter for sustainable development

World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS)

Main funding through the Swiss GCOS Office at the Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss and the Department of Geography, University of Zurich, ongoing.


The 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 represent high-priority key indicators of climate change and are monitored as terrestrial variables within global climate-related observing systems directed by WMO, UNESCO, UNEP, IUGG/IACS and ICSU/WDS. 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.

For more information:

Glacier variations in the western and central Alps: reconstruction of the LIA-glacier history by historical documents, connection to climate variability, art and perception

No funding, but still ongoing.

1. Mer de Glace – art & science

This interdisciplinary project tries to give an overview of the actual state of knowledge of the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France and the western Alps. Geomorphological and dendrogeomorphic studies allow the reconstruction of the palaeogeography (e.g. the last maximal glaciation). A great number of historical documents results in a concise history of the Mer de Glace during the Little Ice Age (LIA). The recent fluctuations of the glacier facing climate change are shown, ending in scenarios of the future (changing surface cover, reduced attractiveness of the landscape, growing natural hazards, big change of public perception of the glaciers).

More information: Click here

2. Die Grindelwaldgletscher – Kunst und Wissenschaft

This interdisciplinary project tries to reconstruct the history of the two Grindelwald glaciers in the Holocene using different methods (e.g. historical documents, dendrochronology, speleothems). The great number of visually rich historical documents (with a lot of newly discovered mid-19th century photographs) allows detailed results of the LIA frontal fluctuations. The impact of climate change on the future glacier extension until the end of the 21st century is estimated by model calculations. The huge ice loss in the last years resulted not only in a dramatic change of landscape, but also in a growing number of natural hazards. The change of the public perception of the famous two glaciers, especially in the last 200 years, is discussed.

More information: Click here

Cryospheric variations in the central Andes: an integrative geomorphological approach

Seed Money Grant for Latin America 2015, funded by the EPFL Leading House for the development and coordination of joint research cooperation programmes, completed (2015–2016).

Research summary

Water in the central Andes (32°–38° S), a semi-arid mountainous area, is of great importance and a critical resource especially in the dry summer months. Ice bodies, such as glaciers and rock glaciers (permafrost) in the high mountains, provide a substantial part of the fresh-water resources but also for intensive economical use for the lowlands including Santiago metropolitan region, Chile. However the evolution of these ice bodies since the last deglaciation (i.e., Holocene, last ~12,000 years), and in particular during historical times, and their feedback with climate is fairly unknown. In view of projected climate change, this is striking because it is also unknown whether these natural resources could be used as sustainable fresh-water source in the future. Understanding ice variability in the semi-arid Andes of Chile during past centuries (i.e., pre-instrumental time) can provide the urgent climate background context before the 20th/21st century global warming and from here to assess local atmosphere-cryosphere linkages. Nonetheless, this important palaeoclimate aspect has remained unappreciated until present.

The main objective of the proposed project is to develop and to apply an integrative geomorphologic approach to study cryospheric landforms such as glaciers, debris-covered glaciers and rock glaciers and their long-term evolution in the central Andes of Chile. We combine geomorphologic mapping using remote-sensing and field data with an innovative surface exposure dating technique to determine the ages of distinct moraine ridges. Surface exposure dating has been successfully applied in the northern and southern, but not in the central, Andes of Chile. This is a climatically very sensitive zone between the southern humid and northern arid Andes, embracing a key location for uncovering past migration of the southern westerlies, the main driver of local climate variability. The project will generate knowledge about a multifarious, patrimonial natural heritage and geological archive in the central Andes, which is nowadays not only threatened by climatic change but also economic activities (e.g., mining).


Glaciers, moraines, water resources, geomorphology, mapping, surface exposure dating, central Andes, Chile, Holocene.

Glacier variations in southern South America: extension of the historical glacier record and connection to climate variability

Project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (fellowship for prospective researchers, grant PBBEP2-139400), completed (2012–2013).

Project abstract

Glaciers are considered among the most sensitive indicators of climate change. One of the most visually compelling examples of recent climate change is the retreat of glaciers in mountain regions. Glaciers have also proven to be an important indicator for studying past decadal to century-scale climate variability. Knowledge about the past evolution of glacier fluctuations (over the last millennium and the Holocene) is sparse in South America despite the particular importance of this area. South America spans a range of climates that are influenced by multiple drivers such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, Antarctic climate or the high Andes. Further, better knowledge of glacier and climate dynamics in South America is important for future research activities in that area and on a global perspective.

This interdisciplinary project will provide new evidence to the South American glacier history and will significantly contribute to the PAGES (Past Global Changes) 2k Network on the reconstruction of climate variability of the last two millennia. New, detailed and highly resolved glacier records, based on as yet unevaluated historical material, complemented with dendrogeomorphic studies will be produced for selected study sites in southern South America. Observed glacier changes will be analysed and interpreted regarding climate dynamics. These observations can be compared with recently developed, high-resolution multi-proxy temperature and precipitation reconstructions. This will allow an assessment of the spatial pattern of glacier changes in southern South America, differentiating local effects from regional or larger-scale climate dynamics.

The glacier length records will be stored according to international standards in the existing database of the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G) as part of the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS). Glaciers are excellent indicators for the public perception of climate change in mountainous areas, and information about ongoing glacier changes and related consequences will be provided.


Glacier reconstructions, glacier dynamics, historical data, dendrogeomorphology, southern South America, Little Ice Age (LIA), palaeoclimatology, perception.

Continental-scale glacier variations in Europe (Alps, Scandinavia) and their connection to climate: past – present – future

Project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant 200021-116354), completed (2007–2010).

Research summary

The understanding of long-term, natural climate variability on different spatial and temporal scales is crucial to assess the recent climate change in a global to regional context. Since glaciers are considered as very important climate indicators, the understanding of past and present glacier variations is a key task for evaluating current climate change. Alpine and Scandinavian glaciers react differently to variations of energy balance, temperature, precipitation and atmospheric circulation. The project investigates the importance of regional/continental temperature and precipitation as driving factors for glacier dynamics (retreats, advances) during the period from the Little Ice Age (LIA) to the early 21st century.

Historical information from different sources and archives allows the reconstruction of glacier length fluctuations and mass balances from (western) Scandinavian glaciers and of a transect from the western to the eastern Alps. Further, the sensitivity of Alpine and Scandinavian glaciers to variations in temperature and precipitation, including glacier advances and retreats covering half a millennium, are studied by means of (non-linear) statistical approaches. A complementary method by reconstruction of mass balances for the Alps and Scandinavia using a continuity approach is also applied. Finally, in combination with climate data based on multi-proxy reconstructions, this enables a synoptical analysis of European climate related to its significance for glacier fluctuations for the last half millennium.

We also address the question of a changing perception of the glaciers in the Alps and in Scandinavia for the last few centuries. The fear of threat by glaciers in early times has changed today to a fear of loss of glaciers as beautiful landscape by the current rapid change of climate.

The long-term glacier length record for the Alps and Scandinavia is stored in the existing database of the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G) as part of the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS). A close cooperation between the Universities in Bern/Zurich and Bergen, Norway (Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research), ensures a mutual enrichment of the scientific research by data and knowledge exchange. Finally, to inform the public about the consequences of the current glacier change is crucial, and glaciers are excellent indicators for the public perception of climate change in mountainous areas.


Glacier reconstructions, historical data, glacier mass balance, glacier variations, glacier simulations, Alps, Scandinavia, Little Ice Age (LIA), synoptic climatology, perception.

Geography, University of Zurich | Geosciences, University of Fribourg | © Samuel Nussbaumer, 2018