Red List habitat classification > RLH - Sparsely vegetated habitats > RLH4.2 Ice cap and glacier

Ice cap and glacier

Quick facts

Red List habitat type code RLH4.2
Threat status
Europe Vulnerable
EU Vulnerable
Relation to
Source European Red List habitat factsheet
European Red List of habitats reports
European Red List of habitats (Excel table)


Glaciers are permanent or near-permanent ice masses, created by the compaction of the snow accumulated in cold climates. These deposits, when they are under pressure, behave like a viscous liquid. So, a glacier is a mobile element, because of its ability to slowly flow along a slope under the effect of gravity. Different types of glacier exist. Characteristic for the arctic regions, ice sheets and ice caps are dome-like ice masses unconstrained by topography. More characteristic of the large mountain ranges, but also present in the arctic regions, most glaciers are constrained by topography. This is the case for cirque glaciers, valley glaciers, mountain glaciers and piedmont glaciers. The smallest form of glacier is derived from snow-drifting, avalanches, or ice deposition in cold-bottom karst dolines. Called glacierets, these small ice masses may have an existence limited to a few years. They are especially sensitive to global warming of the climate. Climate change may cause variations in both temperature and snowfall, causing changes in the surface mass balance. Due to the extreme conditions of this habitat, especially at low temperatures, very few organisms occur in this environment, which could almost be considered sterile. Only some unicellular algae occasionally grow on the melting snow cover of glaciers during summer. These ice formations are found in high altitude or high latitude. In Europe, they occur only in the summit region of the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Scandes, and in the arctic regions.

Indicators of good quality:

  • Long-term balance between accumulation of ice and melting (crucial for sustainable surviving of glaciers), usually expressed as “mass balance” or “surface mass balance” (SMB) and in this way used as a sensitive climate indicator for glaciers.

Characteristic species
For full habitat description, please download the habitat factsheet.

Threat status

Synthesis of Red List assessment

The trend in quantity over the last 50 years and over a longer time period both result in the Red List category Vulnerable (VU) for the EU28 countries. For the EU28+ countries the declines are slightly smaller, leading to the Near Threatened (NT) category. Additionally, the trends in quality (large areas declined with slight severity) lead to the category Vulnerable for both the EU28 and EU28+.
Red List Category Red List Criteria
Vulnerable A1, A3, C/D1, C1
Red List Category Red List Criteria
Vulnerable C/D1, C1

Confidence in the assessment

Red List of habitat categories and criteria descriptions

Pressures and threats

  • Human intrusions and disturbances
    • Skiing, off-piste
    • Other outdoor sports and leisure activities
    • Skiing complex
  • Pollution
    • Air pollution, air-borne pollutants
    • Input of CO2 and other greenhouse gases
  • Geological events, natural catastrophes
    • Volcanic activity
  • Climate change
    • Temperature changes (e.g. rise of temperature & extremes)

Habitat restoration potential

Glacier retreat is visible in the (relatively) low elevation regions. At higher altitudes climatic conditions are cooler and the decline has lower proportions. The increasing of mass balance can potentially reestablishing equilibrium. Restoration takes a long time period and can only happen through a natural way.

Trends in extent

Average current trend in quantity

Decreasing Decreasing
EU28 EU28+

Trends in quality

Average current trend in quality

Decreasing Decreasing
EU28 EU28+

Conservation and management needs

The mass balance, meaning the difference between ice accumulation and melting (or sublimation) of a glacier, is crucial to the survival of glaciers. To manage these processes is beyond the present possibilities of human, even though glacier melting is a highly popular theme for politicians. The decrease of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a big task for the near future. Many important measures are needed, but they are not yet implemented or not sufficiently respected. The glaciers are threatened by other, direct human input, such as skiing off the tracks, by recreation activities and by air pollution from industry and traffic.

List of conservation and management needs

  • No measures
    • Measures needed, but not implemented
  • Measures related to urban areas, industry, energy and transport
    • Urban and industrial waste management
    • Specific management of traffic and energy transport systems


For each habitat a distribution map was produced from a wide variety of sources indicating known and potential occurrences of the habitat in 10x10 km grids within Europe. Occurrences in grid cells were given in two classes: actual distribution from relatively reliable sources (surveys, expert knowledge), and potential distribution based on models or less reliable indicators. Please download the fact sheet to see the map.

Geographic occurrence and trends

EU28 Present or presence uncertain Current area of habitat (Km2) Recent trend in quantity (last 50 years) Recent trend in quality (last 50 years)
Austria Present 367 Decreasing Decreasing
France mainland Present 275 Unknown Decreasing
Italy mainland Present 413 Decreasing Unknown
Slovenia Present 0.02 Decreasing Decreasing
Spain mainland Present 8.6 Decreasing Decreasing
Germany Present 0.4 Decreasing Decreasing
Sweden Present Unknown Unknown Unknown
EU28 + Present or presence uncertain Current area of habitat (Km2) Recent trend in quantity (last 50 years) Recent trend in quality (last 50 years)
Switzerland Present 1050 Decreasing Decreasing
Iceland Present 11000 Unknown Unknown
Norway Mainland Present 46000 Decreasing Decreasing
Svalbard Present 46000 Decreasing Decreasing
Jan Mayen Present 46000 Decreasing Decreasing

Extent of Occurrence, Area of Occupancy and habitat area

Extent of Occurrence (EOO) (Km2) Area of Occupancy (AOO) Current estimated Total Area Comment
EU28 1840350 102 1100
EU28+ 1022 60000
AOO = the area occupied by a habitat measured in number of 10x10 km grid cells.
EOO = the area (km2) of the envelope around all occurrences of a habitat (calculated by a minimum convex polygon).

Characteristic species

Not available

Vegetation types

Relation to vegetation types (syntaxa)

Not available

Other classifications

This habitat may be equivalent to, or broather than, or narrower than the habitats or ecosystems in the following typologies.
Classification Code Habitat type name Relationship type
EUNIS Habitat Classification 200711 H4.2 Ice caps and true glaciers same
European Environment Agency (EEA)
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