Environmental space geodesy: detection of changes in glacier mass from time-variable gravity

Short Description

The primary objective of this project is to precisely assess contemporary ice-mass variation of glacier systems (Alps, Alaska, Himalaya, Iceland, Patagonia, etc.) from space gravimetry.

In the last decade, temporal variations of the gravity field derived from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission have become one of the most ubiquitous and valuable source of information for Earth system studies. In the context of global climate change, this information is of utmost importance from a scientific but also socio-economic perspective (cf. the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC). On regional to local scales, however, the potential of GRACE (augmented by further gravimetric satellite data) has not been fully exploited yet.

Our goal is to provide a solution to this pending challenge. For this purpose, we will develop a tailored analysis strategy that is based on regional adaption (concerning both data and modeling). The approach starts on the level of "raw" satellite measurements and involves the adoption of global optimization methods. For each region of interest individually, the glaciological signal is isolated from the overall gravity signal.

We apply this novel approach to gain improved understanding of the mass change of glacier systems (Alps, Alaska, Baffin Island, Ellesmere Island, Himalaya, Iceland, Patagonia, Svalbard, etc.). Besides the thermal expansion of ocean water, glacier melt is known as the main cause for sea level rise. For the time being, mass balance estimates of these systems are strongly based on in-situ measurements.

This procedure requires the overall mass budget to be extrapolated from rather sparse data sets (surveys of individual glaciers). As a consequence, the estimates are equipped with large error bounds. Our GRACE (and GOCE) analysis, on the other hand, provides (consistent) mass variation signals over the entire region of interest; therefore, we expect these findings to essentially complement existing glacier change assessments

Special attention is paid on the (European) Alps; this region serves as "benchmark area" for the proposed study, motivated by the fact that the glaciological and hydrological data for the Alps is of much higher quality compared to almost any other glacier system around the globe.

The interdisciplinary project SPICE is supposed to substantially enhance progress in Earth observation from space. We expect that the achieved results will significantly contribute to find answer to (geo-)scientific, environmental and societal open questions.

Project Partners


Austrian Academy of Sciences

Project partner

Graz University of Technology

Contact Address

Austrian Academy of Sciences
Vordere Zollamtsstraße 3
A-1030 Vienna

Dr. Ignaz Seipel-Platz 2
A-1010 Vienna
Tel.: +43 (1) 51581-0