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165 Mass and Energy Balances of Glaciers and Ice Sheets

Part 14. Snow and Glacier Hydrology

  1. J Graham Cogley

Published Online: 15 APR 2006

DOI: 10.1002/0470848944.hsa171

Encyclopedia of Hydrological Sciences

Encyclopedia of Hydrological Sciences

How to Cite

Cogley, J. G. 2006. Mass and Energy Balances of Glaciers and Ice Sheets. Encyclopedia of Hydrological Sciences. 14:165.

Author Information

  1. Trent University, Department of Geography, Peterborough, ON, Canada

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 APR 2006


Glaciers exchange energy and mass with the rest of the hydrosphere by snowfall, melting, vapor transfer, and the calving of icebergs. Melting and vapor transfer are significant in both the energy balance and the mass balance, which in consequence are intimately coupled. Glacier energy balances differ from those of other natural surfaces in having small or even negative net radiation. Emission of terrestrial radiation is limited, the surface temperature being no greater than the freezing point, but the surface albedo is always high. The limit on surface temperature, and the year-round tendency for net radiative cooling, means that sensible heat transfer is generally downward, while vapor transfer may be either upward or downward. Once conduction has raised a surface layer to the freezing point, further energy surpluses are used to melt snow or ice. In winter, the energy balance is dominated by radiative cooling. Apart from its close connection with the energy balance, the mass balance is also influenced strongly by glacier dynamics. Glaciers and the flowlines of which they are composed exhibit vertical zonation, with net accumulation at higher and net ablation (mass loss) at lower elevations. This imbalance drives, and is corrected by, the ice flow. The leading methods for the measurement of mass balance are the direct, geodetic, and kinematic methods. Direct measurement involves determining the accumulation and ablation in situ or by equivalent remote sensing, with separate treatment of calving where it occurs. Geodetic measurements require the determination of glacier thickness at two epochs; the change of thickness, approximately equal to the change in surface elevation, gives a volume balance that may be converted to a mass balance if the density of the mass gained or lost can be supplied accurately. In the direct and geodetic approaches, the ice flow is assumed to integrate to zero over any one flowline (correctly, if the entire flowline is measured). Kinematic methods are free of this restriction. They involve measurement of all of the terms in the balance and are therefore more difficult. The need for better understanding of mass balance, at socioeconomic scales from local to global, has stimulated intense study of ways to improve the measurements. Recent and impending methodological advances are coming from radar altimetry, laser altimetry, gravimetry, passive-microwave remote sensing, and interferometry using synthetic aperture radar. A subject requiring increased attention, as the measurements improve in precision and coverage, is improved quantification of the measurement errors. The best current estimates of global average mass balance are equivalent to 0.14–0.44 mm a−1 of sea-level rise, to be compared with the inferred total rate of about 1.9 mm a−1. This figure is a composite of estimates for “small” glaciers (those other than the ice sheets), whose balance has been growing more negative since the 1960s; the Greenland Ice Sheet, which seems to have a negative balance; and the Antarctic Ice Sheet, for which the sign of the mass balance remains in doubt although its magnitude is probably within a few kg m−2 a−1 (mm a−1 water-equivalent) of zero.


  • glaciers;
  • ice sheets;
  • mass balance;
  • energy balance;
  • accumulation;
  • ablation;
  • meltwater;
  • calving