Glacier death: Alpine Association measures the greatest loss in length at Pasterze since measurements began

The annual glacier report from the Austrian Alpine Club shows: 92 of 93 glaciers in Austria retreated, the Pasterze even by 203,5 m, a new negative record value for this glacier. The current report can be read as a further “warning signal for climate policy”.

The volunteer glacier surveyors of the Austrian Alpine Club have for their current Glacier report 93 glaciers observed or measured in Austria: All but one retreated in the 2022/23 glacier budget year.

Compared to last year's report, the former ice giants have become shorter on average by 2022 m from 2023 to 23,9.

This is not only the third highest value in the 133-year history of the Alpine Club Glacier Measurement Service, but also in the last seven years. Austria's largest glacier, the Pasterze (Carinthia), has the highest loss in length, with a new negative record value of 203,5 m for this glacier, followed by the Rettenbachferner (Tyrol) with 127,0 m. For the Austrian Alpine Association, the glacier must be protected without exception and their precursors are more urgent than ever. 

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A “landmark of Austria” continues to melt rapidly

Never before have the volunteer glacier surveyors of the Austrian Alpine Club measured a greater retreat in length at the Pasterze: Compared to last year's glacier report, Austria's largest glacier retreated in length by a total of 203,5 m, a negative record value for the Pasterze. In total, the Pasterze at the glacier tongue lost 14,03 million m³ of ice, which corresponds to a cube with an edge length of 241 m (almost the height of the Danube Tower in Vienna).

Glacier knife at work, Pasterze 2023. Photo by ÖAV glacier measuring service: Andreas Kellerer-Pirklbauer
Glacier knife at work, Pasterze 2023. Photo: ÖAV Gletschermessdienst | Andreas Kellerer-Pirklbauer

Glacier budget year “extraordinarily unfavorable for glaciers”

“In general, the 2022/23 glacier budget year in Austria was extremely unfavorable for glaciers,” says Gerhard Lieb, who, together with Andreas Kellerer-Pirklbauer, is the scientific director of the Alpine Association glacier measurement service. Like Kellerer-Pirklbauer, Lieb works full-time at the Institute for Geography and Spatial Research at the University of Graz.

24 glacier surveyors from the Alpine Club observed or measured a total of 2022 glaciers in Austria for the current 23/93 glacier report: All glaciers except one retreated in length. Almost 99 percent of the observed glaciers became smaller.

Three record values ​​within the last 7 years 

The average retreat amount of the 79 glaciers measured in both 2022 and 2023 was -23,9 m. The trend was determined for 14 other glaciers using photo comparisons or multi-year values. In the 133-year history of the Alpine Club Glacier Measurement Service, this is the third highest value behind those of the measurement years 2021/22 with -28,7 m and 2016/17 with -25,2 m - so all three negative record values ​​were achieved within the last 7 years .

A late but very long and warm melting period in 2023 was once again the main cause of the extremely unfavorable conditions for glaciers.

Andreas Kellerer-Pirklbauer from the Austrian Alpine Club

He continued: «On the glaciated Sonnblick, a new absolute temperature maximum of 15,7°C was measured on July 11, 2023. »

Largest retreat in Carinthia and Tyrol

The maximum retreat amounts in the 2022/23 reporting year were significantly higher than in the previous year, in which no glacier retreated by more than 100 m. In the current reporting year, the five glaciers with the highest retreat amounts were the Pasterze (Carinthia, Glockner Group) with the new record value for this glacier of 203,5 m, the Rettenbachferner (Tyrol, Ötztal Alps) with 127,0 m, the Sexergertenferner (Tyrol, Ötztal Alps) with 93,7 m, the Schlatenkees (East Tyrol, Venice Group) with 92,8 m and the Fernauferner (Tyrol, Stubai Alps) with 68,0 m.

The Pasterze 2023. Photo: ÖAV Gletschermessdienst / Andreas Kellerer-Pirklbauer
The Pasterze 2023. Photo: ÖAV Gletschermessdienst / Andreas Kellerer-Pirklbauer

Glacier report as a “warning signal for climate policy”

According to the Alpine Club's glacier report, there is no longer any glacier in Austria that has a breeding area that can even come close to preserving the existing ice mass. “The Austrian glaciers only exist because of the ice reserves that have accumulated in the past,” inform Lieb and Kellerer-Pirklbauer. According to the heads of the Alpine Club Glacier Measurement Service, the current report can therefore be read “as a warning signal for climate policy”. 

Without exception, glacier protection is more urgent than ever

For years, the Austrian Alpine Club has been pointing out the urgent and unconditional protection of glaciers. According to the Alpine Association, particularly destructive developments on previously untouched glacier areas are anything but contemporary in times of climate crisis.

«A rethink of politics is urgently needed here! We must now move towards nature-friendly tourism - developing previously untouched glacier areas is an overexploitation of nature," emphasizes Nicole Slupetzky, Vice President of the Austrian Alpine Association her father, the geographer and glaciologist Prof. Heinz Slupetzky, has been very attached to the subject of glaciers since childhood.

According to the Alpine Association, the demand for absolute glacier protection, which includes not only the glacier areas but also the glacier forelands - the areas that have been ice-free for 170 years - and moraines, is more urgent than ever.

For us, developing new glaciers and glacier forefields clearly means crossing a red line.

Nicole Slupetzky, Vice President of the Austrian Alpine Club
Nicole Slupetzky, Vice President of the Austrian Alpine Association Photo: Alpenverein/ N.Freudenthaler
Nicole Slupetzky, Vice President of the Austrian Alpine Association Photo: Alpenverein/ N.Freudenthaler

For example, there are currently expansion plans for the “Pitztal Glacier” ski area, where three glaciers that have not yet been developed for skiing could be built. The expansion plans for the “Kaunertal Glacier” ski area would even open up one of the largest remaining glacier areas in the Eastern Alps, the Gepatschferner.

It was only in March that the Tyrolean state government determined that an environmental impact assessment was mandatory for these plans. In the decision, the responsible authority refers to the serious environmental impacts that are to be expected and assumes, for example, intolerable impacts on the protected landscape and recreational value. 

Glacier knife at work, Seekarlesferner 2023. Photo: ÖAV Gletschermessdienst / Markus Strudl
Glacier knife at work, Seekarlesferner 2023. Photo: ÖAV Gletschermessdienst / Markus Strudl

Statistics: Glacier retreat in numbers (measurement period 2022/2023)

10 biggest declines – length losses in meters:

  1. Paster ore (Carinthia, Glockner group) -203,5
  2. Rettenbachferner (Tyrol, Ötztal Alps) -127,0
  3. Sexergertenferner (Tyrol, Ötztal Alps) -93,7
  4. Schlatenkees (Tyrol, Venice Group) -92,8
  5. Fernauferner (Tyrol, Stubai Alps) -68,0
  6. Gepatschferner (Tyrol, Ötztal Alps) -67,0
  7. Freiwandkees (Tyrol, Glockner Group) -65,8
  8. Marzellferner (Tyrol, Ötztal Alps) -49,9
  9. Frosnitzkees (Tyrol, Venice group) -46,0
  10. Alpeinerferner (Tyrol, Stubai Alps) -43,4    

The average retreat amount of the 79 glaciers measured in both 2022 and 2023 was -23,9 m. In the 133-year history of the Alpine Club glacier measurement service, this is the third highest value behind those of the measurement years 2021/22 with -28,7 m and 2016/ 17 with -25,2 m - all three negative record values ​​were achieved within the last 7 years.

Largest declines per mountain group in meters:

  • Glockner Group: Pasterze -203,5
  • Ötztal Alps: Rettenbachferner -127,0
  • Venice group: Schlatenkees -92,8
  • Stubai Alps: Fernauferner -68,0
  • Zillertal Alps: Wildgerloskees -29,7
  • Ankogel-Hochalmspitzgruppe: Western. Trippkees -22,2
  • Silvretta group: Jamtalferner -19,8
  • Goldberg group: Ö. Wurtenkees-Schareck -18,7
  • Dachstein: Gr. Gosu Glacier -9,1
  • Schober Group: Red Button Kees -6,7
  • Granatspitze Group: Landeckkees -5,7
  • Carnic Alps: Eiskar Glacier -2,3

Largest declines per federal state in meters:

  • Carinthia Pasterze -203,5
  • Tyrol Rettenbachferner -127,0              
  • Salzburg Ödenwinkelkees -37,9    
  • Vorarlberg Ochsentalergletscher -15,0
  • Upper Austria Gr. Gosu Glacier -9,1

Average withdrawal amounts over the last 12 years in meters

  • Glacier report 2022/23:        -23,9 
  • Glacier report 2021/22:        -28,7
  • Glacier report 2020/21: -11,0
  • Glacier report 2019/20: -15,0
  • Glacier report 2018/19: -14,3
  • Glacier report 2017/18: -17,2
  • Glacier report 2016/17:        -25,2
  • Glacier report 2015/16: -14,2
  • Glacier report 2014/15: -22,6
  • Glacier report 2013/14: -10,3
  • Glacier report 2012/13: -15,4
  • Glacier report 2011/12: -17,4

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Credits: Cover photo Luca Jänichen for POW, text Austrian Alpine Club

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