GIS Data of the World’s Glaciers

Caitlin Dempsey


An international group of seventy scientists hailing from more than eighteen countries have created the first global datasets of the world’s glaciers (not including the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.  The GIS dataset was rapidly developed in less than two years in order to meet the requirements of the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The completed dataset is known as the Randolph Glacier Inventory (RGI).  A review of the project, methodology for creating the inventory of glaciers, and next steps was recently published in the Journal of Glaciology: “The Randolph Glacier Inventory: a globally complete inventory of glaciers“.

Developing the Glacier GIS Data

Most of the glacier outlines were extracted from freely available satellite imagery.  The Landsat archives formed the dominant satellite imagery source for the undertaking.  Other imagery sources included ASTER, IKONOS, and SPOT 5 high resolution imagery.  Each glacier outline was assigned twelve attributes including an ID, the lat/long of the centroid of the glacier, the date of the image from which the glacier was outlined, the type of the glacier, and the area of the glacier.  More detail about the attribute information is detailed in the PDF, “Supplementary information for
The Randolph Glacier Inventory: a globally complete inventory of glaciers”.

Future Glacier Inventory Tasks

While this global database of glaciers represents the first comprehensive inventory, the paper about the project notes that there are several outstanding tasks.  These include integrating more regionally accurate glacier inventories such as data available from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal, obtaining outlines for the roughly 3,000 glaciers in North Asia which currently only has information for the area and location, pulling more recent outline information for the 8% of the database that predates 1999, and adding information about topography and hypsography.

Accessing the GIS Glacier Data

The RGI found more than 200,000 glaciers covering a collective area of about 730,000 square kilometers.  The more accurate inventory of the world’s glaciers will allow scientist to better model  glacier-climate interactions.

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More information about the Randolph Glacier Inventory is available from the GLIMS: Global Land Ice Measurements from Space web site.  The RGI is currently on version 3.2 and users must register to gain access to the database.   Users can also directly access and download the entire GLIMS Data which is available in shapefile format.

Glacier outlines in the Russian Arctic.
Glacier outlines in the Russian Arctic.


W. Tad Pfeffer, Anthony A. Arendt, Andrew Bliss, Tobias Bolch, J. Graham Cogley, Alex S. Gardner, Jon-Ove Hagen, Regine Hock, Georg Kaser, Christian Kienholz, Evan S. Miles, Geir Moholdt, Nico Mölg, Frank Paul, Valentina Radic, Philipp Rastner, Bruce H. Raup, Justin Rich, Martin J. Sharp. The Randolph Glacier Inventory: a globally complete inventory of glaciersJournal of Glaciology, 2014; 60 (221): 537 DOI: 10.3189/2014JoG13J176

Raup, B.H.; A. Racoviteanu; S.J.S. Khalsa; C. Helm; R. Armstrong; Y. Arnaud (2007). The GLIMS Geospatial Glacier Database: a New Tool for Studying Glacier Change.  Global and Planetary Change 56:101–110.  DOI:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2006.07.018

GLIMS and NSIDC (2005, updated 2013): Global Land Ice Measurements from Space glacier database. Compiled and made available by the international GLIMS community and the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder CO, U.S.A. DOI:10.7265/N5V98602


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.